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Legislation introduced to reclassify manatees as endangered

Writer: Derrick Shaw
Published: Updated:
Credit: CBS News

A record number of manatees have died this year than in any other year in Florida’s recorded history, primarily from starvation due to the loss of seagrass beds. Now, two congressmen are calling on federal officials to grant the animal “endangered” status.

U.S. Reps. Vern Buchanan, R-FL, and Darren Soto, D-FL, announced Monday they have introduced legislation to grant manatees the highest level of federal protection available.

The Manatee Protection Act, H.R. 4946, would officially upgrade the West Indian manatee from “threatened” to “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Upgrading their designation under the ESA will not only require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to refocus their attention on manatee population rehabilitation, but also allow for increased federal resources including more funding and personnel.

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

Congressman Darren Soto said, “2021 was the deadliest year for the West Indian manatee in our home state of Florida. These mass deaths should alarm us all and incite us to take immediate action to protect these precious mammals. By adding the West Indian manatee to the ESA’s endangered list, we are ensuring that necessary steps are taken to prevent any more unnecessary deaths.”

According to Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), 890 manatees have died in just the first seven months of this year. That number has already surpassed the previous record of 830 deaths in all of 2013. Eighty-four of those deaths occurred in Lee County, which ranks second in the state behind Brevard (319) for manatee mortality.

The most recent FWS data estimates that there are only around 6,500 West Indian manatees in the southeastern United States.

Most experts attribute the soaring manatee death count to a significant loss of seagrass along the Atlantic coast, which is causing many manatees to starve to death, as well as a worsening bout of red tide in the Gulf. They also face continued threats from habitat loss and watercraft collisions.

In 2016, Buchanan objected to the FWS downgrading the manatee’s ESA designation from endangered to threatened, noting that they may have been using outdated data to support the reduction in protection. Buchanan was concerned the manatee’s population would decline if their status was downgraded to threatened. The manatee was previously listed as an endangered species dating back to 1966.

In a June letter to FWS, Buchanan called on the agency to upgrade the manatee from “threatened” to “endangered,” citing the degradation of the water quality in manatee habitats, growing levels of water pollution and an increase in harmful algal blooms that kill off seagrass.

The U.S. House recently passed a Buchanan measure to transfer $2 million to FWS to examine the record number of manatee deaths in Florida this year and report to Congress on ways to protect the species.