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A State Of Emergency For Manatees In The Indian River Lagoon And Beyond

Harmful algal blooms in the Indian River Lagoon have led to massive losses in seagrass—a primary source of food for manatees.
Harmful algal blooms in the Indian River Lagoon have led to massive losses in seagrass—a primary source of food for manatees.

Op Ed by Patrick Rose
Executive Director and Aquatic Biologist, Save the Manatee Club

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE—February 16, 2021
Contact: media@savethemanatee.org, 407-539-0990

The Indian River Lagoon (IRL) is one of Florida’s most important estuaries and an essential home to thousands of Florida’s imperiled manatees. As the direct result of human derelictions over many decades, the lagoon has suffered a series of harmful algal blooms, leading to massive losses in seagrass coverage and, in turn, the deaths of a heart-rending number of manatees. Since December 1, 2020, over 300 manatees have died on the greater Atlantic Coast of Florida, with 200 or more of those from the six Florida counties that make up the 156 miles of the IRL. Brevard County mortality is especially grave.

Ironically, these devastating losses are occurring while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has been preoccupied with downgrading the protected status for manatees and refusing to implement the very recovery measures that allowed the manatee population to grow over previous decades since their original classification as endangered in 1967. The federally managed Manatee Recovery Program was once the pride of the FWS. Now it is underfunded and neglected, leaving manatees and manatee habitat to suffer the effects of habitat overdevelopment. While the foundation laid through many years of intense proactive planning is still sound, and the remaining staff are working exceedingly hard to ensure that sick and injured manatees are being rescued, they need much more immediate support.

More specifically, staffing for the manatee recovery program has been reduced, despite the growing problems manatees have faced since they were prematurely and unjustifiably downlisted from “endangered” to “threatened” in 2017. There is no active Manatee Recovery Team, Manatee Implementation Team, or Manatee Warm-Water Task Force. I fear that the FWS is preoccupied with rashly removing the manatee from the endangered species list altogether rather than ensuring that imperiled manatees are truly and fully recovered.

The Manatee Rescue & Rehabilitation Partnership (MRP) works as a cooperative of agencies, organizations, and oceanaria to rescue, rehabilitate, and release manatees.

What must be done immediately? First, the FWS must intensify its support for the efforts of the Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Partnership (MRP) with emergency funding to ensure that every sick and injured manatee will receive emergency assistance and care at partner facilities, which include a number of zoos and aquariums both in and outside of Florida. Right now, record numbers of manatees need acute care, and these facilities do not have enough room for all of them. As a founding partner of the MRP, Save the Manatee Club has increased matching funds to support rescues, rehabilitation, and release monitoring, but more must come from FWS during this unusual mortality event.

The FWS needs to immediately provide additional support for the Manatee Recovery Coordinator and reconvene both the Manatee Implementation Team and Manatee Warm-Water Task Force to accomplish essential recovery tasks and prevent more catastrophes. The FWS should also ensure the U.S. Geological Survey continues their excellent research on manatee habitat use. With the current devastation of manatee forage in the Indian River Lagoon, this research is especially critical for the foreseeable future. Understanding the causes and cures for the collapse of seagrasses and other forage need emergency priority.

Finally, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) must also receive the resources and staffing necessary to carry out its historically strong role as the lead coordinator and supporting partner of the MRP. Because of increasing demands on the FWC overall, more funding is needed to ensure its essential manatee research and management responsibilities continue. These include conducting necropsies and biological testing that reveal the different causes behind why so many manatees are dying.

Manatees are an essential species within our aquatic ecosystems. Saving manatees and the seagrasses upon which so many species depend must be given higher priority if we are to reverse these devastating losses.

Please click the following link to write to Governor DeSantis and urge him to support the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in its role as the lead coordinator of the Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Partnership. You can also click the following link to urge President Biden to press the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to do more to come to the aid of manatees and the Indian River Lagoon. Click the following link to contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Please Note: Although manatees are losing food resources in the Indian River Lagoon, it does NOT mean it is okay to feed them. Giving food to manatees teaches them to associate people and/or boats with food handouts, which changes their behavior and puts them in harm’s way. Plus, it is illegal. Any “feeding events” that are currently being posted have not been approved by either the state or federal government. The best way to help manatees is by writing to the officials listed above. Thanks for your help!

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Patrick Rose is Save the Manatee Club’s Executive Director. Pat has over 40 years’ experience working with manatees and is an Aquatic Biologist and Certified Public Manager. He is considered to be one of the world’s leading experts on the Florida manatee.

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