Manatees up for protection

Manatees up for protection

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Manatees may soon be classified as “Endangered,” as federal wildlife authorities review their status, following a petition submitted by environmental organizations.

There are two subspecies of West Indian manatees: the Antillean manatee (Trichechus manatus manatus) and the Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris), the latter of which is shown above. In the United States, manatees are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibits the take (i.e., harass, hunt, capture or kill) of all marine mammals.

Federal wildlife authorities are re-evaluating the classification of manatees, a move prompted by mounting issues, most notably the devastating loss of seagrass, a critical food source for these gentle marine creatures.

A Long-Overdue Review

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced its intention to revisit the categorization of manatees, contemplating a return from “threatened” to “endangered.” This potential reversal would overturn the 2017 decision to reclassify manatees.

Last year, some environmental organizations had collectively submitted a petition to urge the federal agency to elevate manatees to “Endangered” status.

“Substantial information in the petition indicates that seagrass loss poses a genuine threat to the species, potentially qualifying manatees for endangered status under the Endangered Species Act,” the agency stated in its recent document. “We recognize the merits of the petition, and will launch a comprehensive status review to determine the necessity of the proposed action.”

This decision has been met with approval by the advocates. Ragan Whitlock, a Florida-based attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said, “This is the right call for manatees and everyone who cares about these charming creatures.”

Crucial Measures to Save the Manatees

The ongoing crisis is dire. Florida reported a staggering 1,100 manatee deaths in 2021, a number that decreased to 800 in 2022. This year, although the rate of deaths continued to drop, 476 manatees have already perished as of the previous week, based on data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website.

One of the major contributors to the surge in manatee deaths in 2021 was the loss of seagrass, particularly in regions like the Indian River Lagoon. Manatees, deprived of an adequate food supply, faced starvation.

To mitigate the crisis, state and federal wildlife officials had even resorted to feeding lettuce to manatees congregating in warm waters near a Florida Power & Light power plant in Brevard County to prevent further fatalities.

Comprehensive Review

The review encompasses more than seagrass loss. The agency's document also highlights the need to examine other potential threats which may include the lack of warm-water refuges for manatees during the winter, coastal construction and boat strikes. It states that the review will be exhaustive, reflecting the urgent need to safeguard manatees and to ensure their protection for future generations.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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