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Petition urges feds to protect Florida manatees as endangered

A manatee rests at Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River while shading over a school of mangrove snappers.
Florida FWC
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Special to WGCU
A manatee rests at Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River while shading over a school of mangrove snappers.

Calling declines in Florida's manatee population “dramatic” a coalition of groups have petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to increase protections for the aquatic mammal.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Harvard Animal Law & Policy Clinic, Miami Waterkeeper, Save the Manatee Club and Frank S. González García filed the petition Monday. The petition urges the federal wildlife agency to reclassify the species from threatened to endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

"Since the service prematurely reduced protections in 2017, the species has declined dramatically," a release from the groups about the petition said.

According to information provided by the groups, pollution-fueled algae blooms sparked an ongoing mortality event that killed more than 1,110 Florida manatees in 2021 alone -- 19 percent of the Atlantic population and 13 percent of all manatees in Florida.

The deaths continued this year, the groups said, with 726 manatees dying through October. Manatee experts predict that the high levels of malnourished and starving manatees will continue throughout the winter.

“West Indian manatees from Florida to the Caribbean are facing drastic threats from habitat loss, boat strikes, pollution, climate change and toxic algae blooms," said Ben Rankin, a student attorney at the Harvard Animal Law & Policy Clinic. “The restoration of full Endangered Species Act protections is an essential first step in conserving this species everywhere it is found.”

“The current long-term threats faced by the manatee will take years or even decades of concerted action to solve,” said Savannah Bergeron, an eighth-generation Floridian and student attorney at the Harvard Animal Law & Policy Clinic. “In the meantime, the absolute least we can do is ensure that manatees are given the protections they deserve under the Endangered Species Act, especially since they’re so important to our coastal ecosystems and are one of Florida’s iconic species.”

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The federal wildlife agency has 90 days to evaluate whether the petition to protect the manatee as endangered presents substantial information to indicate that the petitioned action may be warranted. If so, the service must complete a thorough review of the species’ status within 12 months of receiving this petition.

Originally listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1973, the West Indian manatee was down listed from endangered to threatened on March 30, 2017.

A study published in 2021 concluded that Florida manatees were chronically exposed to glyphosate because of application of the pesticide to sugarcane and aquatic weeds.

The study found glyphosate, the active ingredient in the weed-killer Roundup and the world’s most-used pesticide, in the plasma of 55.8 percent of the Florida manatees sampled. The concentration of glyphosate in plasma has increased from 2009 to 2019.

Additionally, the study’s authors determined that glyphosate concentrations in the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers and Everglades Agricultural Area stormwater treatment areas were significantly higher before and during sugarcane harvesting, when glyphosate is more likely to be applied, than after harvest.

“The results of this recent study are cause for serious concern about the chronic use, fate and effects of glyphosate on the manatee population in south Florida,” said John Cassani, of Calusa Waterkeeper, said in March 2021. “An increasing trend for glyphosate in manatee plasma that correlates with concurrent increased usage of glyphosate is disturbing, especially at a time when manatee mortality is at very high levels. The authors report the same level of glyphosate exposure that manatees experience, causes kidney and liver damage in laboratory animals.”

Additionally, Richard Bartleson, a research scientist at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, said earlier this year that he fears a repeat of what happened in the Indian River will start happening in Southwest Florida because the same dynamics are in play.

‘The largest problem manatees face in Southwest Florida is the 100 metric tons of phosphorus coming from Lake Okeechobee via the Peace and Caloosahatchee rivers,” he said. “Coupled with more than 100,000 septic tanks in the rivers’ watersheds that, they leak nutrient-rich water into the rivers, too.”

A release from the coalition stressed that boat strikes are another leading threat to Florida manatees with. on average, more than 100 manatees killed by boaters in the state every year. This number is expected to increase as Florida’s population continues to expand.

In response to a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, Florida Springs Council and Suncoast Waterkeeper, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has proposed a rule to increase boater awareness of manatees and other coastal wildlife.

Originally listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1973, manatees have never truly recovered. The Fish and Wildlife Service announced its final rule downlisting the West Indian manatee from endangered to threatened on March 30, 2017 — despite hundreds of manatees still dying each year from boat strikes, habitat loss and other causes.

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health.

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Tom Bayles and Michael Braun