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Lawsuit says US failed to protect manatee habitats

Federal officials failed to protect the areas manatees depend on, resulting in mass starvation.
Manatees in the central Brevard County area of the Indian River will be fed this winter as part of an emergency response.
Manatees in the central Brevard County area of the Indian River will be fed this winter as part of an emergency response.
Published Feb. 3

FORT LAUDERDALE — Conservation groups sued the federal government Tuesday over last year’s record manatee deaths, saying the government failed to follow the law by designating protected habitat for the marine mammals.

Manatees starved to death by the hundreds on Florida’s east coast last year, largely due to the loss of seagrass in the polluted Indian River Lagoon. The famine led to a record number of deaths, with more than 1,100 dying from starvation, boat strikes, cold stress and other causes.

The lawsuit says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to follow the law by designating sufficient critical habitat, areas that would get extra protection because they’re important to manatees. The agency agreed 12 years ago that additional critical habitat was warranted, the lawsuit states, but never followed up to establish it.

Related: Florida manatees still starving to death, despite intervention

“Meanwhile, Florida manatees and their habitat continue to face dire and imminent threats, including the loss of warm-water refuges and poor water quality that causes persistent harmful algal blooms and a profound loss of seagrass, a crucial food source, leading to mass starvation,” states the lawsuit, filed in federal court in Washington.

“Compounding these threats are a growing number of boat strikes and severe weather events caused by climate disruption.”

Filing the lawsuit were the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and Save the Manatee Club.

“The carnage from 2021 should remove any doubt that Florida’s waters are in crisis,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “With these sweet creatures dying in record numbers, the Biden administration needs to act fast to protect manatee habitat from further destruction.”

Chuck Underwood, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency had no comment.

Related: A record 1,101 Florida manatees died in 2021. When will it end?
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