Environmental groups are petitioning for manatees to be relisted as endangered after hundreds died from pollution in Florida. The petition filed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suggests that it was a mistake to take manatees off the endangered list in 2017. This means that these marine mammals are now only threatened, not immediately at risk of extinction.
Ragan Whitlock is an attorney for the Florida-based Center for Biological Diversity. He explained the thought behind the petition. “The Fish and Wildlife Service now has the opportunity to correct its mistake. [People need to] protect these desperately imperiled animals,” Whitlock told NBC news.
The Endangered Species Act defines an endangered species as one that is in danger of extinction throughout most or all its natural range. A threatened species is one which is likely to become endangered in the future.
The petition, backed by the Save the Manatee Club, Miami Waterkeeper and others, argues that fertilizer runoff from pollution, leaking septic tanks, and more development is causing algae blooms. These bloom have killed a great portion of the plants on which manatees eat.
A record number of manatees died last year
A record 1,100 manatees died from starvation in 2021. At least 736 have died this year as of November 11th, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. 13% of the manatees living in Florida waters died in 2021.
Patrick Rose is executive director of the Save the Manatee Club. He said that placing the manatee back on the endangered list would help to protect them. It would also bring more resources to tackle any problems they may face. “Re-designating manatees as endangered will be a critical first step in righting a terrible wrong,” Rose explained.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has up to 90 days from the date of this petition to determine whether or not restoring the manatee population is needed. If it is, they then have 12 months to complete a review of their status. In an email, The Fish and Wildlife Service stated that officials are aware of the petition. “Service staff will review the petition through our normal petition processes,” they wrote.
State wildlife officials have said that they will continue their experimental feeding program of lettuce to manatees for a second year. The manatees gather by the hundreds near an electric power plant’s warm-water discharge during winter months, and the hope is that this extra food source will help them survive.
Wildlife experts last year fed 202,000 pounds of lettuce to manatees under a program. However, they caution that without more attention to reducing pollution, chronic starvation will continue harming the population. “With astounding losses of seagrasses around the state, we need to address water-quality issues to give the manatee a fighting chance to thrive and survive,” explained Rachel Silverstein, Miami Waterkeeper executive director.