Lawsuit launched over federal failure to protect manatees

Florida population endangered by loss of seagrass, winter habitat

Posted 3/22/24

On March 21, environmental advocates notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of their intent to sue...

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Lawsuit launched over federal failure to protect manatees

Florida population endangered by loss of seagrass, winter habitat


ST. PETERSBURG — On March 21, environmental advocates notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of their intent to sue over the agency’s failure to respond to a request for stronger Endangered Species Act protections for West Indian manatees in Florida and Puerto Rico. The notice was sent by Harvard Law School’s Animal Law & Policy Clinic on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Save the Manatee Club, Miami Waterkeeper and Frank S. González Garcia.

“We are hopeful that, given the many threats to the West Indian manatee, including seagrass loss and the impending loss of warm water refugia, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will quickly issue a finding, as required under the Endangered Species Act,” said Sophia Pereira, a student attorney at Harvard’s Animal Law & Policy Clinic.

The March 21 legal notice follows a November 2022 petition urging the Service to reclassify West Indian manatees from threatened to endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The Service had 12 months to decide whether uplisting the manatees is warranted, but after 16 months the agency has yet to issue its finding. Relisting the West Indian manatee as an endangered species would provide greater protections for the imperiled manatees.

“A positive 12-month finding would serve as an important signal that the agency both acknowledges that manatees are facing substantial and intensifying threats and that the Service is willing to take the necessary steps to safeguard their survival,” said Jonathan Smith, a student attorney at the Harvard Animal Law & Policy Clinic.

The Service previously issued a positive 90-day finding indicating the petition presented substantial information that uplisting may be warranted. The agency found that seagrass losses from water pollution may pose a threat to the manatees such that they may again warrant protection as an endangered species.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service has a vital opportunity to safeguard West Indian manatees, but it must act quickly,” said Ragan Whitlock, a Florida-based attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Florida manatees will soon lose several of their favorite winter homes and they’re predicted to suffer sharp population declines. It’s time to plan for their future, and it starts with increased federal protections.”

State and federal agencies are preparing for the loss of several warm water havens that manatees frequent along Florida’s coast as outfalls are removed from several coastal power plants. The Service estimates that more than half of Florida’s manatees seek shelter from the cold at warm water discharges from power plants. Natural warm water sources are severely threatened by water-quality declines from excess nutrient pollution and groundwater pumping, leaving the manatees dependent on these man-made refugia. Many natural warm water sources are also impeded by manmade structures like the Rodman/Kirkpatrick dam on the Ocklawaha River.

Manatee deaths have spiked since 2017 when the Service reduced protections and downlisted manatees to threatened.  Algae blooms fed by nutrient load from septic tanks on the Indian Rivre Lagoon sparked an ongoing seagrass die-off that has contributed to unprecedented Florida manatee mortality, which led to nearly 2,000 deaths in 2021 and 2022 combined. This two-year record represents more than 20% of all manatees in Florida.

“Having served on each of the Manatee Recovery Teams and numerous expert working groups over several decades, I implore the Service to redesignate and empower a new expert Recovery Team with designated expert working groups to take on the monumental task of quelling the escalating threats and risks to the manatees’ future survival,” said Patrick Rose, an aquatic biologist and executive director of Save the Manatee Club.

Water-quality degradation across the state has led to precipitous seagrass declines, including in manatees’ most important habitat. Unchecked pollution — from wastewater treatment discharges,  septic systems, fertilizer runoff and other sources — is fueling the collapse of the Indian River Lagoon in Florida, leading to the unprecedented mortality event.

A recent study also found more than half of sampled Florida manatees are chronically exposed to glyphosate, a potent herbicide applied to crops and aquatic weeds.

“Due to water pollution, we are seeing the collapse of seagrass habitat and the species that depend on it,” said Dr. Rachel Silverstein, executive director and Waterkeeper of Miami Waterkeeper. “The dire state of water pollution in Florida has pushed Florida’s iconic manatee to the brink of survival, meriting increased protections under the Endangered Species Act.”

The Puerto Rico population of manatees also faces significant threats to its survival. Current estimates suggest as few as 250 manatees currently live in Puerto Rico. The population’s genetic diversity is also very low, which decreases their ability to adapt to changing conditions and rebound after unexpected mortality events such as hurricanes, boat strikes or disease.

“The unexpected increase in mortality rate due to boat strikes that have proliferated in recent years without appropriate awareness, legislation, regulation, or enforcement and the Fish and Wildlife Service’s premature downlisting of manatees back in 2017 are significant factors stirring manatees towards extinction from their coastal habitats in Puerto Rico,” said Frank S. González García, a Puerto Rican engineer concerned about the loss of natural resources. “Manatee recovery in Puerto Rico could only be achieved through the Fish and Wildlife Service’s commitment and diligence to lead a corrective action plan in collaboration with all parties of interest.”

Originally listed as an endangered species 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. That decision came despite hundreds of manatees still dying each year from boat strikes, habitat loss and other causes.

FWC, manatees, intent to sue, seagrass, endangered