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Feds agree Florida manatees need more habitat protections

The endangered manatees suffered a significant decline due to human population growth since their critical habitat was last designated nearly 50 years ago.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (CN) — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service committed on Wednesday to revise the critical habitat designation for endangered Florida manatees by September 2024 in a legal agreement with conservation nonprofits.

The Wildlife Advocacy Project, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and Save the Manatee Club — jointly founded by musician Jimmy Buffett and former U.S. Senator and Florida Governor Bob Graham — filed a petition in December 2008 calling for revisions of the Florida manatee’s critical habitat under the Administrative Procedure Act and Endangered Species Act.

The Florida manatee was one of the first species to be listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, which designated critical manatee habitat for protection in 1976.

After decades of significant changes in coastal development, industrial growth and increased recreational use of the manatees’ nearshore habitats, new understanding of their defined critical habitats is expected to help restore them and improve the species’ recovery.

A record-setting 1,100 Florida manatees died in 2021, mostly due to starvation caused by water pollution in the Indian River Lagoon according to the Center for Biological Diversity. The species continues to face significant threats to its survival throughout Florida, where harmful algae and the loss of seagrass and warm-water refuges, such as springs, continue to shrink its habitat.

The warmer waters that these sea mammals require in natural springs and thermal basins have reduced as a result of their increased use by humans, whose population has increased by 171% in Florida since the species’ critical habitat for the species was designated.

A resulting rise in coastal developments for boating facilities, housing and commercial use have eroded shorelines and disturbed vital sources of vegetation to the manatees’ diet.

During the winter, Florida manatees rely on discharges of warm water from power plants, so they face threats from outages, potential deregulation of the power industry and the decommissioning of older plants.

However, most of the deaths of these sea mammals are human-induced, primarily from collisions with boats but also from being caught, crushed or drowned in canal locks and flood-control structures.

According to the petition, advances in scientific research in the past few decades have led to greater understanding of the manatee and has made it possible “to better identify which habitats are essential at specific times of year for specific biological functions.”

In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that the petitioner’s request for revisions were warranted, but the agency failed to act, stating that it lacked sufficient funds and intended to initiate developments after first completing court-ordered “higher priority actions.”

More than 12 years later, the petitioners called for a designated date to be set in February.

The settlement agreement submitted to U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden states that, by September 12, 2024, the Service will submit a proposed revision of the Florida manatee’s critical habitat to the Office of the Federal Register for publication.

Endangered animals with federally protected critical habitat are more than twice as likely to be moving toward recovery than species without it, according to a 2005 analysis in the peer-reviewed scientific journal BioScience.

Designation helps endangered species by raising public awareness of their presence and the need to protect their habitat, and also identifies specific environmental factors such as vegetation, nesting sites and water quality, and legally protects them against adverse modification by federally permitted activities.

Federal agencies that fund or permit projects in critical habitat areas are required to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure their actions do not harm the protected habitat.

With the Florida manatee being a major focus of ecotourism, the petitioners claim that their requested revision will have a beneficial economic impact for Florida citizens and federal decision makers.

“When the critical habitat and its components are identified with precision and based on the best available scientific data, it will be far simpler to assess which federal agency actions will alter critical habitat to the detriment of the species and which will not,” wrote the petitioners.

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