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Environmental groups ready a lawsuit to declare manatees an endangered species

A manatee floating in water
Bishop Museum of Science and Nature
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Courtesy
A group of environmental advocates announced Thursday they intend to sue the federal government to reclassify the manatee as endangered.

The lawsuit would be the latest legal move intended to protect the threatened sea cows, whose numbers have been decimated in recent years.

A group of environmental advocates announced Thursday they intend to suethe federal government to reclassify the manatee as endangered.  

The threatened lawsuit comes after continued manatee deaths from the loss of seagrass and boating accidents.

In November 2022, the groups filed a petition urging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to upgrade their status. The service had one year to decide whether the relisting is warranted, but has yet to issue its finding after 16 months.

"Our petition is asking them to uplist it back from threatened to endangered," said Ragan Whitlock, an attorney with the advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity, based in St. Petersburg. "And this notice of intent to sue is a statement to the service that we are prepared to litigate if they are unwilling to make that finding in a timely manner. They are already several months overdue. And we believe it's time to quickly act on the manatee front." 

“Due to water pollution, we are seeing the collapse of seagrass habitat and the species that depend on it. 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.”
Rachel Silverstein, executive director and Waterkeeper of Miami Waterkeeper

The service previously issued a 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.

There were nearly 2,000 deaths — almost one-fifth of all manatees in Florida — in 2021 and 2022, mainly due to pollution killing seagrasses they eat in the Indian River Lagoon.

Environmentalists said while the mortalities have eased, unchecked pollution — from wastewater treatment discharges, leaking septic systems, fertilizer runoff and other sources — continues to affect the lagoon.
 
And another threat is looming, Whitlock said.

Warm-water outfalls at power plants used by the cold-sensitive animals could eventually be shut off as they convert to other forms of generating electricity.

"And those man-made refuges are on their way out. So it's critically important for the service to prioritize manatee recovery efforts and understanding how to wean these animals off the manmade power plant outfalls before it's too late," Whitlock said. "We cannot wait for another unusual mortality event before we act." 

It is estimated that more than half of Florida manatees spend their winters at sites like TECO's Big Bend power plant in Apollo Beach and Florida Power and Light’s plant in Brevard County.

Aerial view of hundreds of manatees in the water
Southwest Florida Water Management District
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Courtesy
Hundreds of of manatees gather at Three Sister Springs in Crystal River.

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. Discharges from Lake Okeechobee containing glyphosate have also resulted in higher concentrations of glyphosate in the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.

“Due to water pollution, we are seeing the collapse of seagrass habitat and the species that depend on it,” said 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.

Manatees were originally listed as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act in 1973. The Fish and Wildlife Service announced its final rule downlisting the West Indian manatee from endangered to threatened in 2017.

The parties to the lawsuit include The Center for Biological Diversity, the Harvard Animal Law & Policy Clinic, Miami Waterkeeper, the Save the Manatee Club and Frank S. González García.

A manatee mom and her calf
Keith Ramos
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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
A manatee mom and her calf

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.