Manatees that are dying by the hundreds in Florida due to pollution-induced malnutrition should be reclassified as an endangered species, environmental organizations said in a petition filed Monday.
The petition filed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asserts that removing manatees off the endangered species list in 2017, keeping the slow-moving sea animals classed as threatened was a mistake. Since 1973, they have been categorized as endangered.
Ragan Whitlock, an attorney with the Florida-based Center for Biological Diversity, said, “The Fish and Wildlife Service now has the chance to fix its error and safeguard these critically vulnerable species.”
The Endangered Species Act defines an endangered species as one that is “threatened with extinction across its entire range or a major part thereof.” A threatened species is one that has the potential to become endangered in the near future.
The petition, which is also sponsored by the Save the Manatee Club, Miami Waterkeeper, and others, asserts that pollution from fertilizer runoff, leaking septic tanks, wastewater discharges, and increased development is causing algae blooms that have killed much of the seagrass on which manatees depend, particularly along the east coast of Florida.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, as of November 11, at least 736 manatees had died from malnutrition this year. In 2021, this led to the deaths of a record 1,100 manatees, mostly from starvation. 13 percent of all manatees expected to inhabit Florida waterways perished in 2021.
According to Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, relisting the manatee on the endangered species list will increase government oversight of manatee-related projects and concerns and provide additional resources and experience to address the problem.
Rose said that reclassifying manatees as endangered would be an essential first step in rectifying a grave injustice.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has 90 days to assess whether restoring the manatee to endangered status is appropriate, and if so, 12 months from the petition date to complete a status review.
In an email, the Fish and Wildlife Service said that authorities “are aware of the petition. Service personnel will examine the petition according to our standard petition procedures.”
Meanwhile, state wildlife officials say they will begin a second year of feeding lettuce to manatees that congregate by the hundreds in the warm-water outflow of a power plant near Cape Canaveral during the winter.
In 2012, around 202,000 pounds of mostly donated lettuce were given to manatees as part of the initiative. However, wildlife experts warn that malnutrition is a chronic issue that will continue to threaten the manatee species until more attention is paid to mitigating pollution.
“We must solve water-quality concerns to give manatees a fighting opportunity to flourish and live in the face of staggering seagrass losses throughout the state,” said Rachel Silverstein, executive director of Miami Waterkeeper.