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Saturday, July 20, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Feds say endangered species protections may return for manatees

The decision is the first step toward endangered species protections for manatees.

(CN) — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday that endangered species protections may be restored for manatees.

The decision is a formal response to a petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Harvard Animal Law & Policy Clinic, Miami Waterkeeper, Save the Manatee Club and Frank S. González García.

“This is the right call for manatees and everyone who cares about these charming creatures,” said Ragan Whitlock, a Florida-based attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “I applaud the Fish and Wildlife Service for taking the next step toward increased safeguards. Manatees need every ounce of protection they can get.”

The decision is the first step towards granting greater protections for manatees. The service will now conduct a thorough review of the best-available science before determining whether to increase protections for manatees under the Endangered Species Act. A final protection is due by Nov. 21, 2023. 

In 1973, manatees were classified as endangered but in 2017 the agency reduced protections for manatees to threatened. The species has declined since, facing threats from pollution, boat strikes, and loss of habitat.

“This is a positive first step toward protecting this iconic species and its habitat, which is also home to so many species beyond the manatee,” said Rachel Silverstein, executive director of Miami Waterkeeper. “Reclassifying the manatee as endangered and addressing water quality issues across the state is an imperative to all Floridians and our unique wildlife.”

Algae blooms fueled by environmental pollution have contributed to unprecedented mortality rates for manatees in Florida. Nearly 2,000 animals died in 2021 and 2022 combined, a two-year record. That number represents more than 20% of all manatees in Florida. 

Unchecked pollution from sources such as wastewater treatment discharges, leaking septic tanks, fertilizer runoff and other sources is fueling the collapse of the Indian River Lagoon on Florida’s east coast. The lagoon is home to more than 4,300 species of plants and animals.

“The service’s announcement is immensely appreciated and absolutely warranted at this time, given the extreme declines in manatee populations since 2017,” said Savannah Bergeron, a law student working at Harvard’s Animal Law & Policy Clinic. “While we are sad that manatees’ circumstances make this review necessary, we nonetheless hope that manatees will soon receive all the protections they need.”

A recent study found that more than half of surveyed manatees are being chronically exposed to glyphosate, an herbicide used on sugarcane and aquatic weeds. Discharges from Lake Okeechobee containing glyphosate have also resulted in higher concentrations of glyphosate in the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers

“This finding by the Fish and Wildlife Service is a crucial step in manatees’ road to recovery,” said Ben Rankin, who worked on the petition as a student with Harvard’s Animal Law & Policy Clinic and is now a legal fellow at the center. “Scientists have documented overwhelming threats to manatees in recent years, and it’s heartening the government is taking action to respond.”

Boat strikes remain a threat to manatees, with over 100 being killed by boaters per year on average in Florida. That number is expected to increase as Florida’s population grows. 

In response to a petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Florida Springs Council and Suncoast Waterkeeper, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission finalized a rule in 2022 to increase boater awareness of manatees and other coastal wildlife through boater education. The commission collaborated with the Save the Manatee Club to develop course content. Still, not all Florida boaters are required to take the classes.

Also on Wednesday, the California Fish and Game Commission voted to permanently protect Inyo rock daisies as a threatened species under the California Endangered Species Act.

The Inyo rock daisy is a rare wildflower found only at the highest elevations of the southern Inyo Mountains, between the Eastern Sierra and Death Valley National Park. It lives on ancient carbonate bedrock on Conglomerate Mesa, which is threatened by gold mining.

Categories / Environment, Government, Regional

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