Lawsuit Launched Over Federal Failure To Protect Manatees After Nearly 2,000 Died In 2021 & 2022

Yesterday, The Center for Biological Diversity, Harvard Animal Law & Policy Clinic, Miami Waterkeeper, and Frank S. González García sent a notice of their intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to protect the West Indian manatee under the Endangered Species Act.

The legal notice follows conservationists’ November petition urging the Service to reclassify the species from threatened to endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The Service was required by law to determine within 90 days whether the petition presents substantial information indicating if uplisting the manatee may be warranted. It has now been more than 150 days with no finding.

“I’m appalled that the Fish and Wildlife Service hasn’t responded to our urgent request for increased protections for these desperately imperiled animals,” said Ragan Whitlock, a Florida-based attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s painfully clear that manatees need full protection under the Endangered Species Act, and they need it now. While we’re submitting this notice, I’m hopeful the Service will act quickly to restore full protections.”

Since the Service prematurely reduced protections in 2017, the species has declined dramatically. Pollution-fueled algae blooms sparked an ongoing mortality event that killed nearly 2,000 manatees in the past two years. This represents more than 20% of all manatees in Florida. Manatee experts predict that the high levels of malnourished and starving manatees will continue.

“The government’s lack of urgency in responding to the mass deaths of manatees is deeply concerning,” stated Ben Rankin, a student attorney at the Harvard Animal Law & Policy Clinic. “This cherished species badly needs protection from the federal government, and it shouldn’t take a lawsuit to get the Fish and Wildlife Service to perform its legal duties.”

Unchecked pollution — from wastewater treatment discharges, leaking septic systems, fertilizer runoff and other sources — is fueling the collapse of the Indian River Lagoon, leading to the unprecedented manatee mortality event.

“It has been months of agony and unjustified time lost for manatees in Puerto Rico,” said Frank S. González García, a local engineer concerned with the loss of natural resources. “Recent fatal accidents and unprecedented toxic water discharges aggravate the already precarious living and survival conditions of this beloved species.”

A recent study also found that more than half of sampled Florida manatees are chronically exposed to glyphosate, a potent herbicide applied to sugarcane and aquatic weeds. Discharges from Lake Okeechobee containing glyphosate have also resulted in higher concentrations of glyphosate in the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.

“The science is clear that this species is declining precipitously, and therefore clearly merits uplisting,” noted Rachel Silverstein, Ph.D., executive director of Miami Waterkeeper. “Reclassifying the manatee as endangered and addressing water quality issues across the state is imperative to all Floridians and our unique wildlife.”

Boat strikes are another leading threat to Florida manatees. On average, more than 100 manatees are killed by boaters in Florida every year. This number is expected to increase as Florida’s population continues to expand.

In response to a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, Florida Springs Council and Suncoast Waterkeeper, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has finalized a rule to increase boater awareness of manatees and other coastal wildlife.

Originally listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1973, manatees have never truly recovered. The Fish and Wildlife Service announced its final rule downlisting the West Indian manatee from endangered to threatened on March 30, 2017, despite hundreds of manatees still dying each year from boat strikes, habitat loss, and other causes.

If the Fish and Wildlife Service was to find that the organizations’ petition presents substantial information that uplisting may be warranted, it would have to complete a thorough review of the species’ status by November 21, 2023.

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