A petition filed in November with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintains it was an error to take manatees off the Endangered Species List in 2017. Manatees are now listed as “threatened.”
So far this year, Florida manatee deaths are down compared to 2021 which saw a record, but still much higher than 2020.
According to the petition, filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Harvard Law School Animal Law & Policy Clinic, Save the Manatee Club, Miami Waterkeeper and Frank S. Gonzalez Garcia, “The populations of both subspecies of manatees are decreasing. From its peak in 2017 until 2019, the Florida manatee’s observed population decreased by an average of 6.94% annually. A subsequent unusual mortality event on the Atlantic coast has driven greater population decline, and more than 1,100 Florida manatees died in 2021 alone, representing over 13% of the subspecies’ estimated population.”
The petition states many manatee deaths are due to the loss of seagrass. In the Indian River Lagoon, excessive nutirent pollution has caused algal blooms which prevent sunlight from reaching the seagrass. Causes of sea grass loss include boating, coastal development, dredging, stormwater runoff, septic tanks, legacy nutrients and fertilizers.
In addition, the manatees are losing access to natural springs which maintain a constant temperature year round and historically provided the mammals with cold weather refuges. Consumptive withdrawl of groundwater has reduced the flow rates of the natural springs, the petition maintains, and threatens their sustainability as manatee habitats.
“Existing regulations do not adequately protect manatees,” the petition continues. “In parts of Florida and other countries in the species’ range, recreational users harass manatees, and outside the United States, manatees still face poaching. Florida’s increasing human population compounds many other threats to manatees.
“Increased coastal development to house new residents destroys manatee habitat by worsening water pollution that kills seagrass, blocking manatees’ access to biologically important areas like springs and mangroves, and increasing hazards in the water such as construction equipment or marine debris.”
From Jan. 1, 2022 to Nov. 18, 2022, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission documented 745 manatee deaths.
Nearly half of the deaths were in Brevard County, with 340.
Okeechobee County, with just one manatee death, Hendry County had no manatee deaths. Highlands County had no manatee deaths.
Martin County had 14 manatee deaths. St. Lucie County had 18 deaths. While in the past some Martin County officials tried to blame Lake Okeechobee releases for manatee deaths in their counties, no water has been released from the lake to the St. Lucie River since April 2021.
Of the 745 manatee deaths documented so far this year, 70 were due to watercraft collisions; 12 deaths were due to flood gates or locks.
In 2021, FWC recorded a record 1,100 manatee deaths, primarily from starvation. In 2020, 637 manatee deaths were recorded; in 2019, 607 manatee deaths; in 2018, 824 deaths; in 2017, 538 deaths. Manatee deaths have multiplied over the past 20 years. In 2000, 272 manatee deaths were recorded.