Alarming manatee death toll numbers in Florida push calls for endangered status

Endangered manatee swimming in water — Courtesy: Shutterstock — Image by: Peter Douglas Clark

Following the nearly 2,000 manatee deaths in Florida’s coastal and inland waterways over the past two years, a coalition of environmental organizations has called for the species to be urgently reclassified as endangered.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), according to the supporters, committed a serious error in 2017 when it downgraded the status of the enormous aquatic mammals from endangered to just threatened. The campaigners are led by the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.

They say that the action permitted a nearly unfettered decrease in population after a previous resurgence and removed key government protections for the species, commonly referred to as the sea cow.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 1,015 manatees died in 2021, mostly from famine due to habitat loss and pollution decimating vast areas of the seagrass they depend on for nourishment.

According to the partnership, another 745 deaths have been reported this year as of November 18—a two-year decrease in figures that account for 13 percent of all Florida manatees and 19 percent of the total in the Atlantic.

“With Florida’s manatees dying by the hundreds, it’s painfully clear that the 2017 federal decision to downlist the species was scientifically baseless,” said Ragan Whitlock, a Florida-based attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service now has the opportunity to correct its mistake and protect these desperately imperiled animals.”

The Save the Manatee Club, the FWS director, Martha Williams, and the coalition, which comprises the Harvard Law School Animal Law and Policy Clinic, Miami Waterkeeper, and the Save the Manatee Club, have been petitioned for the change.

“Since the manatee was downlisted to threatened in 2017, it has become more imperiled and will continue to be adversely impacted by increasing natural and man-made threats,” they argue in the 156-page document.

“A growing human population and increased commercial development will only exacerbate these existing threats, and the ongoing effects of climate change…will compound the damage to the manatees’ critical habitat.”

The FWS has 90 days to decide whether upgrading the manatee’s status to endangered is necessary. If so, it has a further nine months to finish an evaluation of the status of manatees.

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