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Lawsuit Launched Over Federal Failure to Protect Manatees

For Immediate Release, May 2, 2023


Ragan Whitlock, Center for Biological Diversity, (727) 426-3653, [email protected]
Sarah Pickering, Harvard Animal Law & Policy Clinic, (617) 852-6484, [email protected]
Rachel Silverstein, Miami Waterkeeper, (305) 905-0856, [email protected]
Frank S. González García, (787) 674-5422, [email protected]

Agency Must Respond After Nearly 2,000 Manatees Die in 2021, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.— The Center for Biological Diversity, Harvard Animal Law & Policy Clinic, Miami Waterkeeper, and Frank S. González García sent a notice today of their intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to protect the West Indian manatee under the Endangered Species Act.

Today’s legal notice follows conservationists’ November petition urging the Service to reclassify the species from threatened to endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The Service was required by law to determine within 90 days whether the petition presents substantial information indicating uplisting the manatee may be warranted. It has now been more than 150 days with no finding.

“I’m appalled that the Fish and Wildlife Service hasn’t responded to our urgent request for increased protections for these desperately imperiled animals,” said Ragan Whitlock, a Florida-based attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s painfully clear that manatees need full protection under the Endangered Species Act, and they need it now. While we’re submitting this notice, I’m hopeful the Service will act quickly to restore full protections.”

Since the Service prematurely reduced protections in 2017, the species has declined dramatically. Pollution-fueled algae blooms sparked an ongoing mortality event that killed nearly 2,000 manatees in the past two years. This represents more than 20% of all manatees in Florida. Manatee experts predict that the high levels of malnourished and starving manatees will continue.

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

“We initially hoped that the Service would respond to our petition quickly, given the overwhelming scientific evidence showing that manatees need increased protection,” said Savannah Bergeron, an eighth-generation Floridian and student attorney at the Harvard Animal Law & Policy Clinic. “But as no response came, and manatee populations continued to decline, it became clear that more must be done to protect these beloved gentle giants."

“It has been months of agony and unjustified time lost for manatees in Puerto Rico,” said Frank S. González García, a local engineer 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.”

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 manatee 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.

“The science is clear that this species is declining precipitously, and therefore clearly merits uplisting,” said Rachel Silverstein, Ph.D., executive director and waterkeeper of Miami Waterkeeper. “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 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 and Suncoast Waterkeeper, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has finalized a rule to increase boater awareness of manatees and other coastal wildlife.

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

If the Fish and Wildlife Service were to find that the organizations’ petition presents substantial information that uplisting may be warranted, it would have to complete a thorough review of the species’ status by November 21, 2023.

Florida manatee. Please credit: Allison Burkhard/Allison Burkhard Wildlife Photography. Image is available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

The Brooks McCormick Jr. Animal Law & Policy Program at Harvard Law School is committed to analyzing and improving the treatment of animals by the legal system. In 2019, it launched the Animal Law & Policy Clinic to provide students with direct hands-on experience in animal advocacy on behalf of both captive animals and wildlife, including litigation, legislation, administrative practice, and policymaking.

Miami Waterkeeper is a South Florida-based non-profit. Our mission is to protect the water you love. We work to ensure swimmable, drinkable, fishable water for all, ultimately working for clean and vibrant waters and associated coastal culture for generations to come. For more information, visit

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    • Center for Biological Diversity
      published this page in Press 2023-05-18 15:50:38 -0400