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

“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. By revising the outdated 1976 critical habitat designation, the Biden administration can help secure additional protection for habitat that is essential to manatee survival.”

Elizabeth Fleming, senior Florida representative at Defenders of Wildlife
St. Petersburg, FL

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today filed a formal notice of their intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to revise outdated critical habitat for Florida manatees.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.

“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, senior Florida representative 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 “By revising the outdated 1976 critical habitat designation, the Biden administration can help secure additional protection for habitat that is essential to manatee survival.”

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.

“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.”

“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.

 

Additional Media Contacts:

Jaclyn Lopez, Center for Biological Diversity, (727) 490-9190, jlopez@biologicaldiversity.org
Patrick Rose, Save the Manatee Club, (850) 570-1373, prose@savethemanatee.org

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Save the Manatee Club has been the “Voice for Manatees since 1981” by advocating for both the manatees’ individual and collective welfare and the protection of the manatees’ aquatic ecosystems through scientific research, education, public awareness as well as legislative and legal advocacy. Learn more about our mission at savethemanatee.org

Defenders of Wildlife is celebrating 75 years of protecting all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With a nationwide network of nearly 2.2 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit defenders.org/newsroom and follow us on Twitter @Defenders.

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