Feds agree to review ‘critical’ manatee habitat as deaths pile up

Environmental advocates hope revising which parts of Florida are critical to the threatened species will help protect it.
A manatee surfaces for air while feeding near Seven Sisters Springs on the Chassahowitzka River in early May.
A manatee surfaces for air while feeding near Seven Sisters Springs on the Chassahowitzka River in early May. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published June 1, 2022

Federal wildlife officials have agreed to reconsider what parts of Florida are most important to the state’s beloved manatees, which continue to die at alarming rates.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will propose an adjustment to its definition of “critical habitat” for manatees, a threatened species, by mid-September 2024, according to an agreement with several environmental advocacy groups. The settlement will resolve the lawsuit those groups — the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and Save the Manatee Club — filed in federal court earlier this year.

The commitment is overdue, said Ragan Whitlock, a Florida attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. The settlement agreement, filed in a Washington D.C. court Wednesday, explains that the Fish and Wildlife Service determined in January 2010 it should revise manatees’ “critical habitat.”

But the agency said then it did not have the funding and would address other priorities first.

“They just simply didn’t prioritize the manatee,” Whitlock said. The agreement, he said, shows the species “can’t stay on the back burner any longer.”

Related: Florida feeds manatees up to 20,000 pounds of lettuce a week as deaths rise

“Critical habitat” constitutes areas that are “essential” to conserving threatened and endangered species, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. For Florida manatees, that includes several estuaries and waterways such as Kings Bay at Crystal River.

Federal agencies are supposed to avoid destroying such places, including when they fund or permit projects that impact the environment. Private developers are not affected by “critical habitat” rules unless they require federal funding or permitting, according to federal officials.

“Critical habitat” for manatees was first designated in 1976, according to the agreement. Critics say that geographical definition is outdated.

Environmental advocates say the revision should identify not just places where manatees live, but specific elements they need to survive, like warm water from Florida springs and seagrasses to eat.

Related: Florida to dedicate $30 million to saving manatees amid die-off

For 1.5 years Florida has experienced a gruesome surge in manatee deaths. Scientists say manatees have starved because of a lack of seagrass in a popular wintering zone, the Indian River Lagoon on the East Coast. Algae blooms, fueled by pollution, have deprived seagrass beds of light needed to survive.

About 1,100 manatees died in Florida last year — a record since scientists began keeping track. People were a danger to manatees before the starvation crisis, too. Many die or are wounded in boat collisions.

At least 562 manatees have died so far this year as of May 27, according to data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Scientists have warned that seagrasses will not return to the Indian River Lagoon quickly, and wildlife officials fear another spike in deaths this winter.

Related: Want to help Florida’s manatees? Don’t feed them yourself.

A number of environmentalists were unhappy the last time federal officials took major action regarding manatees. Regulators in 2017 changed manatees’ status from endangered to threatened, an improvement that some conservation advocates saw as premature. Several federal lawmakers are now calling for manatees to be considered endangered again.

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Pat Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, said the Fish and Wildlife Service’s federal manatee program has diminished because of a lack of funding and staff. The government, he said, needs to do more for manatees than just adjust their “critical habitat.”

“This has to be part of rebuilding a robust program,” Rose said. “This is the first signal I think that they recognize they have catch-up work to do.”