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The Endangered Species Act Turns 50!

Infographic courtesy Endangered Species Coalition.
Infographic courtesy Endangered Species Coalition.

By Kim Dinkins, Senior Conservation Associate

This December marks the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The legislation was signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1973 and has played a key role in the conservation and protection of endangered and threatened species. Manatees were among the first animals listed under the act, and today, it protects over 1,600 plants and animals in the United States. But humans have recognized that manatees deserve special protection since the late 1800s, when a law was passed in Florida making it illegal to assault or kill a manatee.

The Endangered Species Act protects not only manatees but their habitat as well. The act includes protection for areas designated as “critical habitat” that are essential for a species’ survival. For manatees, it requires the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies involved in species protection to develop plans that outline how to recover the population so that they can eventually be removed from the list altogether. Research is conducted to better understand their biology and behavior, and public awareness programs have led to increased public support for manatee protection efforts. The ESA requires federal review of projects that might impact manatees or their habitat, which is a powerful tool in ensuring their protection. The ESA allows specific locations within their habitat to be designated as manatee sanctuaries where people and boats are restricted or not allowed at all.

In the 1970s, less than 1,000 manatees are thought to have existed in Florida. Comparing that to around 6,000 manatees in 2019, when the last official synoptic survey was conducted, and it seems that much progress has been made in improving the population of the West Indian manatee. In 2017, the manatee was “downlisted” from Endangered to Threatened. Under this designation, they are still protected under the ESA, but some of the planning and recovery efforts that were in place prior have dwindled. Save the Manatee Club was actively involved in pushing against that decision, and we are still pursuing opportunities to have their status reevaluated.

Infographic courtesy Endangered Species Coalition.

While the ESA has been extremely important in the protection and recovery of manatees, they are still facing the same threats they faced in the 1970s, along with a few others, and in a more acute way. We have discussed at length over the past few years the mass starvation event that began in 2020 due to seagrass loss in the Indian River Lagoon, brought on by water quality degradation. Fortunately, there has been some recovery of seagrass habitat along Florida’s east coast, along with areas of improved water quality, and over the past year, fewer manatees have succumbed to starvation. We are cautiously optimistic that the dire situation has passed, but remain aware that it is not yet over.

Boat strikes still contribute to more than 20% of manatee deaths in most years, and more boats are registered in Florida now than ever before. Along with boats and boat traffic comes the threat of fishing line and other debris in which manatees can either entangle or ingest those items, leading to severe injuries or, in some cases, death. Water quality issues throughout the state of Florida have directly led to manatee deaths, not just due to seagrass loss but also due to red tide algae blooms, which can cause paralysis and drowning. We have altered our waterways with dams and control structures, which makes reaching natural warm water sites during the coldest months difficult or impossible in some areas.

Despite these ongoing threats, the Endangered Species Act remains the most powerful tool we have to protect our favorite gentle giants. The ESA, combined with state and local efforts to protect the manatee, along with our public advocates and members like you, give us hope that the best days for manatees are ahead of us.

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