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Changes Sought for Florida Manatee Critical Habitat as Deaths Set New Record

An image showing the Florida subspecies of the West Indian manatee.

More Than 905 Manatees Died in Eight Months Amid Significant Habitat Loss

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE—August 16, 2021
Contact:
Jaclyn Lopez, Center for Biological Diversity, (727) 490-9190, jlopez@biologicaldiversity.org
Jake Bleich, Defenders of Wildlife, (202) 772-3208, jbleich@defenders.org
Patrick Rose, Save the Manatee Club, (850) 570-1373, prose@savethemanatee.org

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.— Conservation organizations today filed a formal notice of their intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to revise outdated critical habitat for Florida manatees. More than 905 manatees have died in 2021, and those deaths are attributable primarily to habitat loss.

“Florida manatees desperately need us to help them by cleaning up and protecting their habitat,” said Jaclyn Lopez at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’re hopeful the Biden administration will act quickly to secure protections for these gentle giants.”

In 2008 the Center, Defenders of Wildlife and Save the Manatee Club petitioned the Service to revise and update the manatee’s critical habitat, originally designated in 1976. In 2010 the Service found such revision is warranted, stating that the “loss of Florida’s warm-water habitats is one of the leading threats facing the manatee population.” But the agency has not moved forward on completing the revision process.

“Manatees are taking hits from every direction, whether it’s loss of warm water habitat, lack of food, vessel strikes, entanglement in marine debris, entrapment in water control structures, harassment and other threats,” said Elizabeth Fleming at Defenders of Wildlife. “By revising the outdated 1976 critical habitat designation, the Biden administration can help secure additional protection for habitat that is essential to manatee survival.”

“Tragically, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service minimized the need to update the manatees’ critical habitat and instead proceeded to remove manatees from the list of endangered species despite years of catastrophic seagrass losses in the Indian River Lagoon,” said aquatic biologist and manatee expert Patrick Rose at Save the Manatee Club. “The combination of unprecedented mortality from starvation and serial record-breaking watercraft mortality has led to the recent loss of 20% of the East Coast manatee population in just a six-month period.”

Already this year more than 905 manatees have died, doubling the 5-year annual average in just eight months. More than 50% of these deaths have been in the Indian River Lagoon, a prime year-round manatee foraging habitat that also serves as vital warm water habitat in winter. Many manatees there died of starvation and malnutrition because of nutrient pollution killing off vast areas of seagrass beds.

Florida’s southwest coast is now also suffering a devastating red tide that has killed at least 33 manatees. Experts fear these same staggering levels of manatee mortality will repeat next year.

In 1976 the Service first designated critical habitat for the Florida manatee, but that designation only listed waterways that, at the time, were known to be concentration areas for manatees. As a result, the 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.

Scientific information about the conservation needs of the manatee has increased dramatically in the past 45 years. A revised critical habitat designation based on the best available scientific data will help inform manatee protection efforts at all levels: federal, state, local and private.

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Save the Manatee Club, established in 1981 by the late renowned singer-songwriter, author, and entrepreneur Jimmy Buffett, along with late former Florida Governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham, is dedicated to safeguarding manatees and preserving their aquatic habitat. For more information about manatees and the Club’s efforts, visit savethemanatee.org or call 1-800-432-JOIN (5646).

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