Manatee survival has been under increasing threat for years, and more than 2,600 of the gentle giants have died since the start of 2020.
Because of that, this week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) received more than 18,000 letters supporting a petition to increase protections for West Indian manatees. The petition asks the USFWS to move manatees from threatened to endangered status under the Endangered Species Act. It was filed in November 2022 by the Center for Biological Diversity, Harvard Animal Law & Policy Clinic, Miami Waterkeeper, Save the Manatee Club and Frank S. González García. The USFWS must respond by Feb. 20, 2023, with an initial determination.
“This overwhelming public support proves that people back stronger Endangered Species Act protection for our iconic manatees,” says Ragan Whitlock, a Florida-based attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service has to reverse its lethal decision to downlist these animals who are now starving to death because of pollution,” Whitlock continues. “Protecting these incredibly imperiled creatures as endangered would help put them back on the path to recovery.”
Since the USFWS prematurely reduced manatee protections in 2017, the species’ population has declined dramatically. Pollution-fueled algal blooms sparked an ongoing mortality event that killed nearly 2,000 manatees in 2021 and 2022 combined, and fueled the collapse of the Indian River Lagoon. This two-year mortality record represents more than 20 percent of all manatees in Florida, and manatee experts predict that the animals will continue to suffer high levels of malnourishment and starvation.
A 2021 study also found that 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.
Boat strikes are another leading threat to Florida manatees. On average, boaters kill more than 100 manatees in Florida every year—and that 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 through boater education. However, not all boaters are currently required to take the education course.
After receiving the petition to increase protections on Nov. 21, 2022, the USFWS had 90 days to evaluate whether the petition to protect the manatee as endangered presents substantial information to indicate that action may be warranted. If the USFWS determines uplisting manatees from threatened to endangered may be warranted, it must complete a thorough review of the species’ status within 12 months of receiving the petition.
“If we can enact even small changes to preserve manatees,” says Whitlock, speaking to why every individual manatee matters, “that gives them a fighting chance to still be here when the Indian River Lagoon recovers.”