Florida Manatees Move Toward Restored Endangered Species Act Protection After Dramatic Decline In Their Population

In response to a formal petition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced this week that reclassifying the West Indian manatee from threatened to endangered may be warranted.

This week’s decision, known as a 90-day finding, is the first procedural step toward providing much greater protections for the imperiled species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must now conduct a thorough review of the best available science before determining whether to increase protections under the Endangered Species Act. A final protection decision is due by November 21st, 2023.

The formal petition was submitted by the Center for Biological Diversity, Harvard Animal Law & Policy Clinic, Miami Waterkeeper, Save the Manatee Club, and Frank S. González García. 

“This is the right call for manatees and everyone who cares about these charming creatures,” said Ragan Whitlock, a Florida-based attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “I applaud the Fish and Wildlife Service for taking the next step toward increased safeguards. Manatees need every ounce of protection they can get.”

“This finding by the Fish and Wildlife Service is a crucial step in manatees’ road to recovery,” said Ben Rankin, who worked on the petition as a student with Harvard’s Animal Law & Policy Clinic and is now a legal fellow at the Center. “Scientists have documented overwhelming threats to manatees in recent years, and it’s heartening the government is taking action to respond.”

Since the Service prematurely reduced manatee protections in 2017, the species has declined dramatically. Pollution-fueled algae blooms sparked an ongoing mortality event that has contributed to unprecedented Florida manatee mortality. There were approximately 2,000 manatee deaths in 2021 and 2022 combined. This two-year record represents more than 20% of all manatees in Florida. Manatee experts predict that there will sadly be more malnourished and starving manatees with fewer births for years to come.

“We are pleased that the Fish and Wildlife Service recognizes the need to reevaluate its ill-timed decision to downlist the Florida manatee,” said Patrick Rose, an aquatic biologist and executive director of Save the Manatee Club. “There can be no doubt that the Service needs to immediately rebuild its manatee recovery program through increased staffing and funding. While the two remaining manatee recovery staff members are doing an incredible job in the face of unprecedented environmental assaults upon the manatees and their habitat, they must have more help right now to forestall this continuing emergency.”

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 mortality event. A recent study also found 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.

“This is a positive first step toward protecting this iconic species and its habitat, which is also home to so many species beyond the manatee,” said Rachel Silverstein, Ph.D., executive director of Miami Waterkeeper. “Reclassifying the manatee as endangered and addressing water quality issues across the state is an imperative to all Floridians and our unique wildlife.”

Boat strikes also threaten 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, Suncoast Waterkeeper, and Save the Manatee Club to develop course content, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission finalized a rule last year to increase boater awareness of manatees and other coastal wildlife through boater education. Still, not all Florida boaters are required to take the education course, which they should.

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

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