Scuba divers and kayakers among a flock of manatees at the entrance to Three Sisters Springs, Florida. Photo/Mike Carlson, AP
US wildlife officials have agreed to revise critical habitat designation for Florida manatees, which are dying in record numbers because water pollution is killing a primary food source.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in a legal settlement released Wednesday that it would release a proposed review by Sept. 12, 2024. The settlement comes in a long-running legal case involving the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and the Save the Manatee Club.
The rule would bring stronger federal control to projects that could affect the manatee in waterways in which marine mammals are known to concentrate. One such area is the Indian River Lagoon on Florida’s east coast, where this winter authorities managed to feed manatees tons of lettuce in an unprecedented experiment to prevent more starvation.
Last year, more than 1,100 manatees died largely from lack of food, a Florida record. This year, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reports 562 manatee deaths in late May. Dozens of other manatees have been rescued and are being cared for at zoos, marine facilities and aquariums across the country.
The critical habitat designation for the manatee has not been updated since 1976; it’s something that manatee advocates have been calling for since 2008. The state wildlife commission estimates that there are about 7,500 manatees in the wild in Florida.
“Saving the places where manatees live will help put these incredibly endangered animals back on the path to recovery,” said Ragan Whitlock, attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Protecting the habitat of these magnificent creatures is long overdue, but we are pleased that these safeguards will soon be in place.”
The larger issue for manatee survival is improving water quality. Their favorite seagrass food is disappearing due to chronic pollution from agriculture, sewage and urban runoff, as well as other sources. Efforts are underway to restore crucial seagrass beds, but these are long-term projects.
Florida wildlife officials were encouraged this spring to find that some seagrasses are naturally regrowing in key habitat areas. But they warned that it would only take one algae bloom caused by pollution to wipe out those gains.
Once that happens, manatee advocates say the critical habitat overhaul will be another key piece of the puzzle to saving these unique and beloved creatures.
The Fish and Wildlife Service “delayed the Critical Habitat Review for a decade, and now the manatee’s plight is so severe that the Critical Habitat Review can no longer be put on the back burner,” said Patrick Rose. , executive director of the Save the Manatee Club. , which was co-founded by Florida minstrel Jimmy Buffet.
“We are thrilled that FWS is finally willing to take this critical step to save our endangered manatees and hope this signals a shift in the priority given to manatee survival and recovery,” Rose added.
– Associated press