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Groups Set Stage For Lawsuit Over Manatee Protections In Florida

Florida manatees in Crystal River
Florida manatees in Crystal River

“These commercials are to kind of rip people's hearts, which to me is a little bit of a disservice,” Barreto said. “I mean, I get it. It’s a fundraising tactic, and they raise a lot of money. But I think the public should know that it’s red tide, it’s the disease out there, it's forage, and then there are boats.”

With more than 900 manatee deaths this year in Florida, conservation groups signaled Monday that they plan to file a lawsuit against the federal government over “critical habitat” areas for the sea cows.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and the Save the Manatee Club filed a notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, alleging that it has violated federal law by not updating designated critical-habitat areas to better protect manatees.

Florida has had at least 905 manatee deaths this year, already exceeding the previous annual record of 830 deaths in 2013, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission numbers. Among the factors has been poor water quality in areas such as the Indian River Lagoon that has caused a significant loss of seagrass, a key source of food for manatees.

“Revised critical habitat is necessary to provide these imperiled marine mammals life-saving protections, to enhance their recovery and to reduce the risk of their extinction,” said the notice of intent to sue, which must be filed 60 days before an actual lawsuit. It alleges violations of the Endangered Species Act and a law known as the Administrative Procedure Act.

The notice said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated critical habitat for manatees in 1976, listing waterways known to be concentration areas for manatees. Critical habitat was designated in Citrus, Hillsborough, Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte, DeSoto, Lee, Collier, Monroe, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Martin, Volusia, Brevard, Nassau and Duval counties, according to the notice.

But the conservation groups contend that the federal agency did not comply with later changes in law that required designation of more-specific critical habitat areas that could bolster protections. As an example, a news release from the conservation groups Monday said the 1976 designation “does not describe any specific physical or biological features, like seagrass or warm water springs, that are essential to the conservation of the manatee.”

Manatees were reclassified in 2017 from “endangered” to “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, but this year’s record number of deaths has led to calls to reimpose the endangered classification. U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., and U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., announced last week that they were introducing legislation to designate manatees as endangered.

“Manatees are beloved, iconic mammals in Florida,” Buchanan said in a prepared statement. “This year’s record-breaking number of manatee deaths is staggering and extremely concerning, which is why upgrading their ESA (Endangered Species Act) status is absolutely critical. We must do everything we can to protect these gentle giants and Florida’s official marine mammal.”

Along with a loss of seagrass linked to poor water quality, other factors that have contributed to manatee deaths have been a loss of warm-water habitats in the winter, red tide and being struck by boats, according to Monday’s notice.

The 905 deaths reported this year through Aug. 6 were more than the combined number of deaths in 2019 and 2020, according to a report posted on the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website. Deaths totaled 369 in 2019 and 402 in 2020.

During a discussion of manatee deaths during a Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission meeting this month, Commissioner Mike Sole warned that solving the seagrass problems won’t happen quickly.

“A couple of things that are, you know, scary things to say, but you know the long-term solution of habitat restoration, that's seagrass restoration, doesn't happen overnight,” Sole, a former secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, said. “So, I call it a five- to 10-year process. … We really can't start planting grasses until water quality is reasonably squared away in certain parts.”

Commission Chairman Rodney Barreto said an estimated 7,520 to 10,280 manatees in Florida waters was a success story, as the animals were no longer considered endangered with the 2017 reclassification. Barreto also complained about manatee conservation efforts that have focused on interactions between boaters and manatees.