Conservationists are pushing Congress to pass a bill that would list Florida's manatee as endangered
Nearly 1,000 Florida manatees have died so far this year. And congressional lawmakers are hoping to bypass current regulations to get the West Indian manatee immediately relisted as endangered.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) says most of the manatees starved to death last winter when they went to warm water spots with little food. That food was lost due to nutrient pollution, which caused algal blooms that clouded sunlight, killing the plant life manatees depend on. Gil McRae directs the FWC's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.
"In past years, we lost seagrass, but we've had macro-algae—seaweed—available for manatees to eat. The current situation is we don't have a large acreage of either right now," McRae says.
Patrick Rose is an aquatic biologist and executive director of Save the Manatee Club. A catastrophic algal bloom in the Indian River Lagoon caught his attention in 2011. And Rose says the blooms have continued and are in other state waterbodies where manatees live. He believes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wasn't considering how widespread the blooms were when it downlisted the manatee to threatened in 2017.
"They should have paid attention from a scientific standpoint that this is something that was getting dramatically worse and was likely to get worse yet," Rose says.
Rose says there were issues of vegetation loss in other areas manatees depended on as well. But he says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wanted to declare a premature victory.
"The things that we were warning them about and the things we expressed concerns over essentially are happening, and they're happening at a scale that we hoped we'd never see. The idea that large numbers of manatees were literally starving to death is not something that should have ever reached that point," Rose says.
In a statement to WFSU, the service says it knows that a loss of food habitat threatens the manatee. And that biologists are trying to figure out why so many died last winter.
The Manatee Protection Act of 2021 would designate the West Indian Manatee, Florida's manatee, as endangered. Sarah Gledhill is with the Florida Wildlife Federation, a non-profit conservation group.
"We realize that the manatees don't have a lot of time, and we need to unite with our elected officials and not only apply political pressure but public pressure on the process to uplist the manatee to [the] endangered species list," Gledhill says.
Her group is trying to get more cosponsors and public support for the Manatee Protection Act. She says normally, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is petitioned through a legal petition to examine a species' population and current threats to its survival, or it goes through a stock assessment and five-year periodic review. But she says the manatee may not have that much time.
"So what we're trying to do is find a middle ground where we're not going to rely on the stock assessment to come out next year and then a five-year recovery plan to come out in a few more years. We realize that the manatee doesn't have years," Gledhill says.
Florida U.S. Representative Darren Soto is the original cosponsor for the bill. He says the biggest challenge will be getting a hearing.
"The nation has a lot of environmental needs, and so this will be one of them that we have to fit in there, but I believe we will soon, and we could see the administration respond even before a hearing," Soto says.
Soto hopes the bill will get a hearing late this year or early next year. In the meantime, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it has started the five-year review. Florida's most recent estimate shows 8,800 manatees live in Florida. According to that count, more than 11% of the population has died off so far this year.