Manatees, which are dying by the hundreds primarily from pollution-related starvation in Florida, should be listed again as an endangered species, environmental groups said Monday in a petition calling for the change.
The petition, filed with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, claims it was a mistake to remove manatees from the endangered species list in 2017, leaving the slow-moving marine mammal only as threatened. They have been listed as vulnerable since 1973.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service now has an opportunity to right its mistake and protect these desperately endangered animals,” said Ragan Whitlock, attorney for the Florida-based Center for Biological Diversity.
Under the Endangered Species Act, a species is considered endangered if it is “critically endangered throughout its range, or a significant part of its range”. A threatened species is a species that could be endangered in the foreseeable future.
The petition, which is also sponsored by Save the Manatee Club, Miami Waterkeeper and others, claims pollution from fertilizer runoff, leaking septic tanks, sewage discharges and increased development is triggering algal blooms that have killed much of the seagrass on which manatees in particular depend on Florida’s east coast.
This primarily led to the starvation of a record-breaking 1,100 manatees in 2021 and is continuing this year, with at least 736 manatee deaths reported as of Nov. 11, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. 2021 deaths accounted for 13% of all manatees estimated to live in Florida waters.
Putting the manatee back on the endangered manatee list would improve federal scrutiny of projects and issues affecting manatees and bring more resources and expertise to addressing the issue, said Patrick Rose, executive director of Save the Manatee Club.
“Reclassifying manatees as endangered will be a critical first step in righting a terrible wrong,” Rose said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has 90 days to decide whether restoring the manatee to endangered status is warranted and, if so, 12 months from the date of the petition to complete a review of the manatee’s status.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said in an email that officials “are aware of the petition. Service staff will review the petition as part of our normal petitioning process.”
Meanwhile, state wildlife officials say they will launch a second year of experimental feeding lettuce to manatees, which congregate by the hundreds in the hot water spillway of a power plant near Cape Canaveral during the winter.
Last year, the program fed about 202,000 pounds of mostly donated lettuce to manatees. However, without paying more attention to reducing pollution, wildlife experts warn that hunger is a chronic problem that will continue to harm the manatee population.
“With the staggering loss of seagrass across the state, we must address water quality issues to give the manatee a chance to thrive and survive,” said Rachel Silverstein, executive director of Miami Waterkeeper.