The deaths of nearly 2,000 manatees in Florida’s coastal and inland streams in the past two years have prompted an alliance of environmental groups to call for an urgent reclassification of the species to officially endangered.
Advocates, led by the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, insist the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) made a critical mistake in 2017 by prematurely downgrading the status of giant aquatic mammals from endangered to merely threatened. .
The move, they say, removed crucial federal protections for the species, sometimes also known as the sea cow, and allowed for an almost runaway decline in numbers after an earlier revival.
During 2021, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 1,015 manatees were killed, largely due to starvation as pollution and habitat loss destroyed huge areas of marine vegetation from which they rely on for food.
Another 745 deaths have been recorded this year through Nov. 18, a two-year decline that represents 19 percent of the Atlantic population and 13 percent of all manatees in Florida, the alliance state.
“With Florida manatees dying by the hundreds, it is painfully clear that the 2017 federal decision to eliminate the species was scientifically baseless,” said Ragan Whitlock, a Florida-based attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service now has the opportunity to right its mistake and protect these desperately endangered animals.”
The alliance, which includes Harvard Law School’s Animal Policy and Law Clinic, Save the Manatee Club and the Miami Waterkeeper, has petitioned Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and FWS Director Martha Williams, for the change.
“Since the manatee was classified as threatened in 2017, it has become more endangered and will continue to be negatively impacted by increased natural and man-made threats,” they argue in the 156-page document.
“A growing human population and increased commercial development will only exacerbate these existing threats, and the ongoing effects of climate change … will exacerbate damage to critical manatee habitat.”
FWS has 90 days to determine if restoring the manatee to endangered status is warranted. If he does, he has nine more months to complete a review of the manatees’ status.
In a statement to the Guardian, FWS said it was aware of the groups’ request and that “service staff will look into the petition through our normal petition processes”.
A species is considered “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act if it is “in danger of extinction in all or a significant part of its range”. A “threatened” species could become endangered in the near future.
Environmentalists blame polluting wastewater treatment plants, leaking septic systems, runoff from fertilizers and other sources for poisoning streams where manatees were once abundant and killing the algae.
Particularly affected is Indian River Lagoon, where the alliance says more than half of Florida manatees sampled are chronically exposed to glyphosate, a powerful herbicide applied to sugarcane and aquatic weeds.
Discharges from Lake Okeechobee containing glyphosate have also led to higher concentrations of the herbicide in the Caloosahatchee and St Lucie rivers, proponents say.
“With staggering seagrass losses across the state, we need to address water quality issues to give the manatee a fighting chance to survive and thrive,” said Rachel Silverstein, executive director of Miami Waterkeeper.
The shortage of greenery is so bad that authorities are reviving a feeding program introduced last year that provides lettuce in areas where manatees congregate. By the time the program ended in April, more than 202,000 pounds of lettuce had been distributed, funded mostly by public donations, with agency officials saying it had “worked really well.”
Savannah Bergeron, an eighth-generation Floridian and student advocate at Harvard’s Animal Law and Policy Clinic, said restoring the manatees to an endangered state would be an important first step.
“The current long-term threats faced by the manatee will take years or even decades of concerted action to resolve,” he said.
“The absolute minimum we can do is ensure manatees receive the protections they deserve under the Endangered Species Act, especially since they are so important to our coastal ecosystems and are one of Florida’s iconic species.”