Alarming manatee death toll in Florida prompts calls for endangered status

Mammals were downgraded from endangered to threatened in 2017, even as pollution and habitat loss drive starvation

The deaths of almost 2,000 manatees in Florida’s coastal and inland waterways over the last two years has provoked an alliance of environmental groups to demand an urgent reclassification of the species to officially endangered.

The advocates, led by the non-profit Center for Biological Diversity, insist the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) made a critical error in 2017 by prematurely downgrading the status of the giant aquatic mammals from endangered to merely threatened.

The move, they say, removed crucial federal protections to the species, sometimes also known as the sea cow, and allowed an almost unchecked decline in numbers after a previous revival.

During 2021, 1,015 manatees were killed, according to the Florida fish and wildlife conservation commission, largely through starvation as pollution and habitat loss destroyed huge areas of seagrass vegetation they rely on for food.

Another 745 deaths have been recorded this year to 18 November, a two-year drop in numbers that represents 19% of the Atlantic population, and 13% of all manatees in Florida, the alliance states.

“With Florida’s manatees dying by the hundreds, it’s painfully clear that the 2017 federal decision to downlist 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 correct its mistake and protect these desperately imperiled animals.”

The alliance, which includes Harvard Law School’s animal law and policy clinic, the Save the Manatee Club and Miami Waterkeeper, has petitioned the interior secretary, Deb Haaland, and FWS director, Martha Williams, for the change.

“Since the manatee was downlisted to threatened in 2017, it has become more imperiled and will continue to be adversely impacted by increasing 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 compound damage to the manatees’ critical habitat.”

FWS has 90 days to determine whether restoring the manatee to endangered status is warranted. If it does, it has a further nine months to complete a review of manatees’ status.

In a statement to the Guardian, FWS said it is aware of the groups’ request, and that “service staff will review the petition through our normal petition processes”.

A species is considered “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act if it is “in danger 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 wastewater treatment plants, leaking septic systems, fertilizer runoff and other sources for poisoning waterways where manatees were once abundant, and killing off seagrass.

Particularly affected is Indian River Lagoon, where the alliance says 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 the herbicide in the Caloosahatchee and St Lucie rivers, the advocates say.

“With astounding losses of seagrasses around 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 vegetation shortage is so critical that authorities are relaunching a feeding program introduced last year that provides lettuce in areas where manatees gather. When the program ended in April, more than 202,000lb of lettuce, funded mostly by public donations, had been distributed, with agency officials saying it had “worked really well”.

Savannah Bergeron, an eighth-generation Floridian and student attorney at the Harvard animal law and policy clinic, said restoration of an endangered status for manatees 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 solve,” she said.

“The absolute least we can do is ensure that manatees are given the protections they deserve under the Endangered Species Act, especially since they’re so important to our coastal ecosystems and are one of Florida’s iconic species.”


Richard Luscombe in Miami

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Florida’s manatees are dying in record numbers – but a lawsuit offers hope
US wildlife agency agrees to review protection for habitats after conservationists sue over mass die-offs from poor water quality

Salomé Gómez-Upegui

10, Jun, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
Breeding program boosts endangered Florida grasshopper sparrow population
A conservation program has successfully reared 100 sparrows and released them back into their natural environment

Oliver Milman

25, Dec, 2019 @7:30 AM

Article image
Big cat comeback? Florida strikes bipartisan deal to help endangered panthers
State lawmakers agree on $400m measure to expand ‘wildlife corridors’ in effort to help panthers and other endangered species

Jewel Wicker in Atlanta

07, May, 2021 @10:30 AM

Article image
Pandemic gives breathing room to endangered sea turtles
A new study suggests endangered loggerhead turtles reclaimed empty shores to breed during Covid, but conservationists fear the return of mass tourism

Mia Alberti in Zakynthos

27, Jul, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
Officials hail 'encouraging' number of north Atlantic right whale births
At least 14 new calves seen off south-eastern US this season but advocacy group warns of ongoing ‘unusual mortality event’

Richard Luscombe in Miami

25, Jan, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Toilet-invading iguanas among invasive species now banned in Florida
Distraught pet owners can get permits for creatures including pythons and lizards but state wants trade and breeding to stop

Ed Pilkington

22, Mar, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Iguanas with chips: Florida seeks solution to invasive reptile problem
State official ‘proud that Florida is looked at as a leader’ but ‘tag day’ initiative opposed by some owners of exotic pets

Richard Luscombe in Miami

03, May, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Fish on drugs: cocktail of medications is ‘contaminating ocean food chain’
Study in Florida finds ‘widespread’ traces of a total of 58 medications including heart drugs, opioids, antidepressants and antifungals in increasingly rare bonefish and their prey

Salomé Gómez-Upegui

29, Apr, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Vaquita porpoise could survive … but only if illegal fishing stops immediately
DNA study finds rarest cetacean, only found in Gulf of California, has enough genetic diversity to recover – if gillnet ban is enforced

Karen McVeigh

05, May, 2022 @6:00 PM

Article image
Sharp rise in Florida manatee deaths as algal blooms hasten food depletion
Death toll at 749, on course to pass high mark set in 2018, as pollution including nutrient runoff kills seagrass

Richard Luscombe in Miami

31, May, 2021 @6:00 AM