By Jim Saunders ©2023 The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Federal wildlife officials will consider whether manatees should be classified as an endangered species, pointing to issues such as a loss of seagrass that serves as a key food source for the animals.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday issued a document that said the agency will conduct a review and that shifting manatees from a threatened species to an endangered species “may be warranted.” Such a change could offer greater protections for manatees and would effectively reverse a 2017 decision that reclassified manatees from endangered to threatened.
The Center for Biological Diversity, the Harvard Animal Law & Policy Clinic, Miami Waterkeeper, the Save the Manatee Club and Frank S. González García, an engineer, filed a petition last year asking the federal agency to list manatees as endangered.
“We find the petition presents substantial information that seagrass loss may be a threat to the species such that it may meet the definition of an endangered species under the (Endangered Species) Act,” Wednesday’s document said. “Therefore, we find that the petition presents substantial information that the petitioned action, reclassifying the West Indian manatee as endangered, may be warranted and we will commence a status review to determine if the action is warranted.”
The Center for Biological Diversity released the document, which says it will be published Thursday in the Federal Register.
“This is the right call for manatees and everyone who cares about these charming creatures,” Ragan Whitlock, a Florida-based attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a prepared statement. “I applaud the Fish and Wildlife Service for taking the next step toward increased safeguards. Manatees need every ounce of protection they can get.”
Florida had a record 1,100 manatee deaths in 2021, followed by 800 deaths in 2022. The rate of deaths has slowed this year, with 476 as of the end of last week, according to data posted on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website.
A key issue in the 2021 deaths was a lack of seagrass in areas such as the Indian River Lagoon, leading manatees to starve. That led state and federal wildlife officials to take a highly unusual step of feeding lettuce to manatees that congregated in warm water near a Florida Power & Light power plant in Brevard County. The feeding was designed to stave off further starvation.
In 2021, 358 of the manatee deaths were reported in Brevard County, while 110 were in Lee County, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission data shows. As of the end of last week, 46 manatees had died this year in Brevard County, while the most deaths, 103, were reported in Lee County.
In addition to the loss of seagrass, Wednesday’s document indicated wildlife officials could look at other issues during the review, including a lack of warm-water refugees for manatees during the winter, coastal construction and boat strikes. It said the review “will evaluate all relevant threats and conservation actions in detail based on the best scientific and commercial data available.”