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Another group of conservationists plans to sue US government unless they save manatees

By Jim Waymer

Published: May 4, 2023, Updated May 5, 2023

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Three environmental groups and an engineer from Puerto Rico plan to sue the feds to force them once again to call manatees "endangered."

On Tuesday, the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, Harvard Animal Law & Policy Clinic, Miami Waterkeeper and Frank S. González Garcia, an engineer in Puerto Rico, where manatees also live, sent a notice of their intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to protect manatees under the Endangered Species Act.

They say the feds never should have reclassified the marine mammal from "endangered" to the less-serious status of "threatened" in 2017. That change, they say, set sea cows on a fatal path to starvation that's claimed some 2,000 manatees in the past two years. Many of the deaths have been in Brevard County, where once-lush seagrass supported about a third of the state's manatees.

“I’m appalled that the Fish and Wildlife Service hasn’t responded to our urgent request for increased protections for these desperately imperiled animals,” Ragan Whitlock, a Florida-based attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a prepared statement. “It’s painfully clear that manatees need full protection under the Endangered Species Act, and they need it now.”

Tuesday’s legal notice follows conservationists’ November petition urging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reclassify the species from threatened to endangered. The service is required by law to determine within 90 days whether the petition warrants reclassifying manatees. But more than 150 days passed with no finding, so now the groups have put the feds on notice that they plan to sue.

The agency prematurely reduced protections in 2017, the groups said, resulting in the species' dramatic decline.

The potential suit adds to another lawsuit filed in November by the nonprofit Bear Warriors United Inc. They filed suit in the Middle District of Florida in Orlando against the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, accusing the agency of failing to protect manatees under the Endangered Species Act by allowing pollution from septic tanks and sewage systems.

"They never considered that maybe all the seagrass would collapse," Lesley Blackner, a a Palm Beach attorney representing Bear Warriors, said Wednesday of the 2017 reclassification of manatees to threatened. "What was the hysteria for down-listing it?"

Environmentalists argue manatees are a Florida icon that draws and inspires people to get involved in marine conservation. But for some boaters, fishermen and others who use coastal waters, the animal also unnecessarily limits how docks get built, as well as when, where and how people can boat.

Boaters, especially in Brevard, have objected to slow-speed zones and other restrictions. By focusing almost exclusively on boating activities, they say, conservationists missed the larger environmental issues challenging the sea cow, and what impacts a rebounding population might have on their food supply. So much has been done, according to boaters, at their expense that the animals have nearly doubled their population from 20 years ago and have therefore eaten themselves into a crisis.

Biologists say manatees remain malnourished, because of seagrass loss due to severe, chronic algae blooms, especially in the Indian River Lagoon.

“The government’s lack of urgency in responding to the mass deaths of manatees is deeply concerning," Ben Rankin, a student attorney at the Harvard Animal Law & Policy Clinic, said in a prepared statement. “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.”

Pollution from sewer plants, leaking septic systems, fertilizer runoff and other sources is fueling the collapse of the Indian River Lagoon, biologists warn, leading to the unprecedented manatee die off.

The most recent groups threatening to sue point to herbicide pollution, too.

A 2021 study by University of Florida found more than half of manatees sampled are chronically exposed to glyphosate, an herbicide (commonly sold as Roundup) applied to sugarcane and aquatic weeds. Discharges from Lake Okeechobee have resulted in higher glyphosate levels in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers, some research has found.

“The science is clear that this species is declining precipitously, and therefore clearly merits uplisting,” Rachel Silverstein, executive director and waterkeeper of Miami Waterkeeper, said in the press release. “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 manatees, typically accounting for 1 in 5 deaths, or more in some years.

Manatees were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1973. The Fish and Wildlife Service announced its final rule downlisting the species from endangered to threatened on March 30, 2017.

Through April 28, at least 268 manatees have died in Florida this year, including 15 deaths in Brevard, according to state statistics. That compares with 535 that had died at this point last year and 708 that died in 2021. The five-year average is 406 manatee deaths.

The manatee death toll got so bad in 2021 that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared the die-off an Unusual Mortality Event, freeing up more federal funding and protection for the species. Then in the winter of 2022, in a first-of-its kind pilot project to try to stave off further starvation, state and federal biologists fed manatees at the FPL plant. They repeated the same feeding process this past winter.

But the problem isn't just in Florida.

“It has been months of agony and unjustified time lost for manatees in Puerto Rico,” said Frank González Garcia, an engineer who's 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.”

While he an engineering student at Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, he saw manatees up close near the Indian River Lagoon. "It was the first time I saw a manatee," he said via email. That inspired him to get involved with manatee conservation when he returned to Puerto Rico.

He's worried about the Antillean manatee subspecies that inhabits Puerto Rico as part of the Greater Antilles in the Caribbean region, all the way to Caribbean edges or coastal regions of Central and South America, from México to Brazil. Along with the Florida manatee subspecies, they are both classified as one species, the West Indian manatee.

There are only about 500 to 700 manatees in Puerto Rico at any given time, González Garcia said.

The main cause of manatee deaths in Puerto Rico is collisions with speeding boats, frequently leaving behind orphans, he said via email.

"Degrading water quality issues as well as insufficient government enforcement are having a critical impact on the health conditions and survivability of this species in Puerto Rico."

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