Federal wildlife officials are set to consider reclassifying manatees as an endangered species due to concerns over the loss of seagrass, which serves as a vital food source for these marine animals. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) recently released a document stating that a review will be conducted and that the shift from a threatened to an endangered species status “may be warranted.” If this change is implemented, it would provide greater protections for manatees and reverse a 2017 decision that downgraded their status from endangered to threatened.
Last year, several organizations, including the Center for Biological Diversity, the Harvard Animal Law & Policy Clinic, Miami Waterkeeper, the Save the Manatee Club, and engineer Frank S. González García, filed a petition urging the federal agency to list manatees as endangered. The USFWS document acknowledges that the petition presents significant evidence of seagrass loss as a potential threat to the species, potentially meeting the criteria for an endangered species designation under the Endangered Species Act. As a result, the USFWS will commence a status review to determine if reclassifying the West Indian manatee as endangered is justified.
The Center for Biological Diversity has released the document, which is scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on Thursday. Ragan Whitlock, a Florida-based attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, praised the USFWS for taking a step towards increased safeguards for manatees. Whitlock emphasized the need for comprehensive protection measures, stating that manatees require every possible safeguard to ensure their survival.
Florida has witnessed a significant increase in manatee deaths in recent years, with a record 1,100 deaths in 2021 and 800 deaths in 2022. However, the death rate has slowed down this year, with 476 reported deaths as of the end of last week, as per data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The lack of seagrass in areas like the Indian River Lagoon was a major contributing factor to the deaths in 2021, leading to starvation among manatees. In response, state and federal wildlife officials took an unprecedented step of feeding lettuce to manatees congregating in warm water near a Florida Power & Light power plant in Brevard County to prevent further starvation.
Brevard County witnessed the highest number of manatee deaths in 2021, with 358 reported cases, followed by 110 deaths in Lee County, according to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. As of the end of last week, Brevard County has recorded 46 manatee deaths this year, while Lee County has reported the highest number of deaths at 103.
The USFWS document also highlighted other factors that may be considered during the review, such as the lack of warm-water refuges for manatees during the winter, coastal construction, and boat strikes. The review will comprehensively evaluate all relevant threats and conservation measures based on the best scientific and commercial data available.
In conclusion, the potential reclassification of manatees as endangered species reflects the growing concerns over the loss of seagrass and its impact on the survival of these marine mammals. The upcoming review by the USFWS will play a crucial role in determining the appropriate level of protection and conservation efforts needed to ensure the long-term viability of manatee populations.