By Jacey Birch
Published: June 13, 2023
Read the original article in Local10 News.
If Florida had an animal mascot, manatees would definitely be at the top of that list, but we are losing these gentle giants at an alarming rate.
You may remember when the sea cows were downgraded from an endangered species to threatened years ago, but now protection groups are rallying together and threatening serious action if something isn’t done to save the manatee.
One of the most beautiful sea animals you can come across in Florida is this gentle giant.
Known to be elusive with no predators except the byproduct of human activity, manatee numbers are dwindling at an alarming rate.
“Over 2,000 deaths since 2020, which is a huge increase and extremely concerning, and mostly tied to unchecked pollution and water quality,” Amanda Prieto, of Miami Waterkeeper, said.
That accounts for 20 percent of the West Indian manatee population, which is now down to just 8,000-10,000 in Florida waters.
Prieto is part of a group of conservationists intending to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to protect the sea cows under the Endangered Species Act.
“We feel strongly that in 2017 they down-listed the Florida manatee from endangered to threatened a little prematurely -- they didn’t consider an unusual mortality event, which unfortunately is exactly what happened,” Prieto said.
If you’ve lived in Florida for any amount of time, you are used to those wake zones and speed limits to protect the manatees from boats and propeller strikes. But the new problem, the new killer, and the biggest issue is the pollution in our waters, which leaves these majestic mammals that feed for 6-8 hours a day, in peril due to a loss of sea grass.
Starvation occurs as human pollution destroys their limited food source.
“The tragedy in the Indian River Lagoon, where hundreds of manatees have died of starvation, is a symptom of a larger water quality problem. It will take a long time to undo the harm that got us to this point,” said Elise Bennett from the Center for Biological Diversity.
“This is really a tipping point and that we need to make some drastic changes to make improvements,” Prieto said.
Improved water quality, sea grass restoration, conservation of critical habitat and the protected status of being back on the endangered species list will all help to save our beloved manatees.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must respond by early July or else litigation will begin.
But no matter what happens with the lawsuit, the federal agency must decide this November on what the status will be for the manatee going forward.