Manatees might return to the endangered species list

Manatees: Two oblong gray creatures, one smaller, floating underwater in teal blue sea.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering whether manatees should be moved back onto the Endangered Species List. Sadly, in 2021, a record 1,101 manatees died in Florida, mostly of starvation. Image via NOAA/ Unsplash.

Manatees might return to the endangered species list

Manatees are large, gentle marine mammals nicknamed sea cows. They’ve been battling for survival for decades but were downlisted from endangered to threatened in 2017. But in 2021 and 2022, Florida saw a two-year record in deaths for manatees, mostly due to starvation. On October 11, 2023, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced their review of petitions to relist manatees as endangered and said that the change “may be warranted.”

The process for getting on the endangered species list is not a quick one. In response to the petitions to relist the manatees as endangered, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completed two 90-day studies. These studies found that the petitions may be warranted. But now, the Service will conduct 12-month studies to determine whether it will actually put manatees back on the endangered list. Mike Oetker, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acting regional director, said:

The Service has a long history of working to save the manatee from extinction since it was one of the first species listed under the 1967 precursor to the Endangered Species Act. We are committed to ensuring we are getting the most updated scientific information during this status review to protect and recover the species.

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A deadly couple of years for manatees

Manatees were downlisted to threatened in 2017. That year, there were 538 manatee deaths in Florida. The following year, there were 824. And the past two years have been the worst of all. According to Inside Climate News:

Nearly 2,000 manatees died in Florida in 2021 and 2022: a two-year record. Conservation groups said the mortalities represented more than 20% of the state’s population.

Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, told Inside Climate News:

The best scientific information was available to the Fish and Wildlife Service when they went through the process of downlisting manatees, and we believe it was unjustified from a biological standpoint and that the risks and threats were actually increasing. Our warnings sadly unfortunately came true in a huge way.

After a record 1,101 manatees died in Florida in 2021 due mostly to starvation, wildlife officials began feeding manatees hundreds of thousands of pounds of lettuce. With the manatees’ food source choked out by algae blooms, tens of thousands of acres of sea grass went missing. So, state wildlife officials tossed romaine and iceberg lettuce into waters at the Indian River Lagoon. This 156-mile-long stretch along Florida’s east central coast saw more than half of the 2021 starvation deaths. Manatees seek out the warmer water here near a power station in the winter months.

Benefits and threats

Manatees are voracious eaters of sea grass. Their feasts help to keep the grass short and maintain the health of the environment. Sea grass grows in shallow water that receives filtered sunlight. So manatees spend most of their time in shallow water.

Shallow waters put manatees in danger of collisions with boats. Keeping the public informed of the presence of manatees can help reduce these collisions.

Another issue is that manatees feed and nest along waterways that are prime real estate for development. As NOAA said:

As new developments are built along waterways, natural nesting areas are destroyed. Sewage, manure and fertilizer runoff enters the water and causes algal blooms. Some of this algae is toxic and can kill manatees if they eat it.

Wide, fleshy, gray snout with closed nostrils and small eyes above pokes out from water surface.
Manatees are starving at unprecedented rates. Image via Lars H. Knudsen/ Pexels.

How you can help

The Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida is a nonprofit group that raises money to help feed starving manatees. They are replanting sea grasses along the depleted coast. In 2022, they were the sole purchaser of the lettuce used to supplement the manatees. Learn more about this highly-rated charity here.

Do you live near or work in the waters where these manatees live? You may be able to help get them relisted. The petitions for returning manatees to the endangered list specifically involve the West Indian manatee and the Puerto Rican population of the Antillean manatee. These subspecies are both currently listed as threatened. The Service said that it is requesting new scientific and commercial data and other information regarding the West Indian manatee throughout its range. The public can submit data here, using docket number FWS-R4-ES-2023-0106 in the search box.

Bottom line: Manatees died in record numbers over the past two years. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering relisting them as an endangered species.

Via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Via Inside Climate News

Read more: Lifeform of the week: Florida manatee

October 22, 2023

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