Worst year ever for Florida manatees

Rose the manatee, and friends, at Blue Spring. See manatees live on Save the Manatee Club’s Blue Spring webcams at ManaTV.org. - Save the Manatee Club | Submitted

MANATEE COUNTY – By July 2 – halfway into 2021 – 841 manatees had died in Florida waters, more than in each of the two worst years in Florida’s history.

In 2018, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) reported 824 manatee deaths; in 2013, a record 830 deaths.

This year’s dismal record is primarily due to the loss of seagrass on the east coast of Florida’s inland waterways, according to the FWC, which, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), has declared it an “Unusual Mortality Event,” prompting an ongoing investigation.

With red tide in Tampa Bay and other local waterways, thought to be fed by the discharge of 215 million gallons of nutrient-laden wastewater from the Piney Point phosphate plant this spring, manatees on the west coast also appear to be in danger. In Manatee County, 10 manatees died in the first half of this year, three from boat strikes.

Boats strikes caused 63 of this year’s deaths statewide. In its most recent report, the FWC notes that “The recurrence of watercraft-related mortality as the leading cause of death in manatees necropsied in the Atlantic region in June, consistent with similar observations on the Gulf coast, underscores the need for previously identified threats such as watercraft-related mortality to continue to be recognized as a concern for the population.”

Manatees no longer have ‘endangered’ status

Four years ago, the USFWS downlisted the West Indian manatee, including its subspecies, the Florida manatee, from the “endangered” species list to a “threatened” species status. The FWC’s state imperiled species list mirrors the USFWS’s federal imperiled species list for several species, including manatees.

Protected as endangered since 1967 under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the manatee “no longer meets the Act’s definition of endangered and should be reclassified as threatened,” according to the 2017 USFWS declaration.

The ESA defines an endangered species as being “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range,” while a threatened species is “likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”

The downlisting came after the Pacific Legal Foundation, on behalf of recreational boating group Save Crystal River Inc., petitioned the wildlife service, saying the safety measures addressing the manatee’s endangered level of protection were bad for tourism and boating businesses.

Among the opponents of the downlisting was Dr. Katie Tripp, of the Save the Manatee Club, who wrote a 27-page letter to the USFWS on the reclassification.

“A downlisting to ‘threatened’ is premature and would substantially interfere with, if not outright prevent, the recovery of the species,” she wrote. “If all of the risks and threats to the manatees are taken into account, the only possible conclusion under the law is to maintain the West Indian Manatee’s status as ‘endangered.’ ”

Another opponent was Glenn Compton, director of the local environmental group ManaSota-88, who questioned the state’s consistency in counting manatees from the air, sometimes with one aircraft and sometimes with more; sometimes over one day and sometimes over more than one day.

“The methodology they use from year to year should be consistent,” Compton told The Sun in 2017. “Using different days on different counts is like comparing apples to oranges.”

In 2019, the FWC counted 5,733 manatees in state waters. This year’s survey was not conducted due to safety precautions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and last year’s was not conducted due to warmer than average winter weather. Manatees congregate in cold weather, making them easier to count from the air.

Population accuracy aside, “The biggest factor is loss of habitat due to development and increased boating with the state’s increasing population. Whatever gains are purported to occur, I would expect to see that go the other way in the future,” he said prophetically.

Congressman urges uplisting

In a move to recognize the manatee as endangered once again, U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Manatee) has called on the USFWS to upgrade the manatee from “threatened” status to “endangered.”

“Manatees are beloved, iconic mammals in Florida,” Buchanan said in a press release. “We should provide these gentle giants with the highest levels of federal protection.”

“When a species becomes extinct, it is lost forever,” he said. “We cannot afford to let that happen to these iconic residents of Florida and the state’s official marine mammal.”

In a letter to the wildlife service, Buchanan wrote, “There is a broad consensus among marine biologists and conservationists that the driving force behind the rapidly growing death rate is the degradation of the water quality in manatee habitats, growing levels of water pollution and an increase of harmful algal blooms that kill off seagrass. As seagrass disappears, manatees starve to death. Wildlife observers noted earlier this year that many of the dead manatees washing up on the shores were seriously emaciated.”

Former governor supports uplisting

Former Florida Governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham, co-founder in 1981 with singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett of the Save the Manatee Club, supports uplisting in a letter on the organization’s website.

“The tragic loss of nearly 600 manatees statewide in fewer than three months in 2021 must be a wake-up call to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which dropped the ball when they listened to anti-manatee groups like the Pacific Legal Foundation and prematurely took manatees off the endangered species list over the objections of scientists and thousands of Americans who understood that the manatees’ future was not secure but in fact could get much worse. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should admit its mistake and relist the manatee as an endangered species,” he wrote.

“I, along with my dear friend Jimmy Buffett, urge President Joe Biden to demand that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal agencies make protecting manatees and recovering seagrasses and other submerged aquatic vegetation a top priority in ensuring that our aquatic ecosystems are nursed back to health.

Graham also appealed to Gov. Ron DeSantis to make Florida’s Clean Waterways Act live up to its name… “and clean up the Indian River Lagoon and other Florida waterways before they too collapse under the demise of uncontrolled harmful algal blooms fueled by continued human-produced waste from unsustainable development.”

“The only way to reverse these devastating consequences of too much nutrient pollution is for citizens to demand that their local, state and federal leaders make cleaning up our waterways a top mutual priority,” he wrote. “Unless we stop the excess nutrient pollution from making its way into our bays, lagoons and rivers, our state will not be fit for man or manatee alike.”