The deaths of nearly 2,000 manatees in Florida’s coastal and inland waterways over the past two years have provoked an alliance of environmental groups to call for the species to be urgently reclassified as officially endangered.
Advocates, led by the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, insist that the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) made a critical mistake in 2017 when it prematurely downgraded the giant aquatic mammal’s status from endangered to only threatened.
The move, they said, removed crucial federal protections for the species, sometimes known as the sea cow, and allowed numbers to decline almost unchecked after a previous recovery.
During 2021, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 1,015 manatees were killed, mostly by starvation, as pollution and habitat loss destroyed vast areas of the seagrass vegetation they rely on for food.
Another 745 deaths were recorded this year through Nov. 18, a two-year decline in numbers that represent 19% of the Atlantic population and 13% of all manatees in Florida, the alliance states.
“With Florida manatees dying by the hundreds, it is painfully clear that the 2017 federal decision to list the species was scientifically unfounded,” said Ragan Whitlock, an attorney for the Florida-based Center for Biological Diversity.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service now has an opportunity to correct its mistake and protect these critically endangered animals.”
The alliance, which includes Harvard Law School’s Animal Law and Policy Clinic, the Save the Manatee Club and Miami Waterkeeper, petitioned Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and FWS Director Martha Williams for the change.
“Since the manatee was listed as threatened in 2017, it has become more threatened and will continue to be adversely affected by increasing natural and man-made threats,” it states in the 156-page document.
“Growing human populations and increased commercial development will only exacerbate these existing threats, and the ongoing effects of climate change … will damage critical manatee habitat.”
The FWS has 90 days to determine whether restoring the manatee to threatened status is warranted. If so, he has another nine 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 review the petition through our normal petition processes.”
A species is considered “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act if it is “at risk of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range”. A “threatened” species may become endangered in the foreseeable future.
Environmentalists blame pollution from sewage treatment plants, leaking septic tanks, fertilizer runoff and other sources for poisoning waterways where manatees once abounded and killing seagrass.
Particularly affected is the Indian River Lagoon, where the alliance says more than half of Florida’s manatees are chronically exposed to glyphosate, a powerful herbicide applied to sugar cane and aquatic weeds.
Lake Okeechobee discharges containing glyphosate also led to higher concentrations of the herbicide in the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, advocates say.
“With staggering losses of seaweed across the state, we must address water quality issues to give the manatee a chance to survive and thrive,” said Rachel Silverstein, executive director of Miami Waterkeeper.
The lack of vegetation is so critical that authorities are reintroducing a feeding program introduced last year that provides lettuce in areas where manatees congregate. When the program ended in April, more than 202,000 pounds of lettuce, funded mostly by public donations, had been distributed, with agency officials saying it “worked really well.”
Savannah Bergeron, a Florida and eighth-generation student attorney at Harvard’s Animal Law and Policy Clinic, said restoring the manatees’ endangered status would be an important first step.
“Addressing the current long-term threats facing the manatee will take years or even decades of concerted action,” she said.
“The least we can do is ensure that manatees are given the protection they deserve under the Endangered Species Act, especially when they are so important to our coastal ecosystems and one of Florida’s iconic species.”