Manatees who are dying by the hundreds, mostly from pollution-caused famine in Florida, should be listed as an endangered species again, environmental groups said Monday in a petition seeking change.
The petition filed with the US Fish and Wildlife Service argues that it was a mistake to remove manatees from the endangered list in 2017, leaving slow-moving marine mammals on the list only as threatened. They had been listed as endangered since 1973.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service now has an opportunity to right their mistake and protect these desperately endangered animals,” said Ragan Whitlock, an attorney with the Florida-based Center for Biological Diversity.
Under the Endangered Species Act, a species is considered endangered if it is “endangered throughout its range or a significant portion of its range.” A threatened species is one that may be in danger of extinction in the foreseeable future.
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The petition, also sponsored by Save the Manatee Club, Miami Waterkeeper and others, argues that pollution from fertilizer runoff, septic tank leaks, sewage discharges and increased development are causing algae blooms that they have killed much of the seagrass that manatees depend on, especially on the east coast of Florida.
That resulted in the deaths primarily from starvation of a record 1,100 manatees in 2021 and continues this year, with at least 736 manatee deaths reported as of Nov. 11, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The 2021 deaths accounted for 13% of all manatees estimated to be living in Florida waters.
Placing the manatee back on the endangered species list would improve federal scrutiny of projects and issues involving manatees and bring more resources and expertise to address the problem, said Patrick Rose, executive director of Save the Manatee Club. .
“Redesignating manatees as endangered will be a critical first step in righting a terrible mistake,” Rose said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has 90 days to determine if restoration of 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 request. Service personnel will review the request through our normal request processes.”
Meanwhile, state wildlife officials say they will launch a second year of experimental lettuce feeding for manatees who gather by the hundreds during the winter at the warm water discharge from an electric power plant near Cape Canaveral.
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Last year, about 202,000 pounds of lettuce, mostly donated, was fed to manatees under the program. But wildlife experts warn that hunger is a chronic problem that will continue to hurt the manatee population if more attention is not paid to reducing pollution.
“With staggering losses of seagrass across the state, we must address water quality issues to give manatees a chance to thrive and survive,” said Rachel Silverstein, executive director of Miami Waterkeeper.