Florida’s Threatened Manatee Habitat Protections Receive Overdue Update

State and federal biologists provided extra lettuce earlier this year for hungry manatees in the Indian River Lagoon. Photo courtesy FWC

ORLANDO, Fla.—The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is to update and improve habitat protections for diseased manatees in the state over the next two years, under a legal agreement announced this week.

The agreement comes as the gentle sea cows face extraordinary habitat challenges in Florida, including widespread water quality issues and loss of seagrass in 156’s Indian River Lagoon. miles, a crucial habitat for manatees on the east coast.

The problems led to record mortality last year of more than 1,100 manatees in the state, prompting wildlife agencies to resort to the unprecedented measure of providing extra lettuce to starving manatees in the lagoon. Deaths have continued this year, with 562 recorded statewide since January.

Under the agreement, US Fish and Wildlife has until September 12, 2024 to review the manatee’s critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act. The Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and Save the Manatee Club, which filed the lawsuit, say critical habitat, a legal term encompassing waterways considered vital to manatee recovery, has not been released. day since 1976. The manatee was downlisted in 2017. from threatened to threatened.

The groups say not only has scientific understanding of the manatee advanced since 1976, but Congress and U.S. Fish and Wildlife have also redefined what critical habitat is. For example, while the Indian River Lagoon is included in existing manatee critical habitat, important features such as seagrass beds are not. The designation prohibits any federal agency from authorizing, funding, or undertaking any action that would adversely affect the habitat.

“Back in 1976, critical habitat was basically a list of places where we knew manatees existed,” said Ragan Whitlock, attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “So not only has that list of places changed a lot over the last 40 or 50 years, but also what they need to survive, right? So it’s Johnson’s herbarium. It is access to warm water sites in winter on which they can survive. And we’re glad now that the Fish and Wildlife Service has recognized that this had to happen, and there’s no more manatee shelving.

Conservation groups asked U.S. Fish and Wildlife in 2008 to update and strengthen the manatee’s critical habitat, and in 2009 and again in 2010 the agency acknowledged that the update was warranted. But at the time, US Fish and Wildlife said it lacked funding for the effort due to “higher priority actions such as court-ordered listing-related actions and court-approved settlement agreements.” justice,” according to the groups. After the groups released the settlement this week, the agency released a statement saying it was committed to the review.

The manatee faces other significant threats to its habitat. Harmful algal blooms like those in the Indian River Lagoon that are responsible for seagrass losses are likely to worsen as waters warm with climate change. Some flowers, like red tide, are poisonous and can poison manatees.

Cold-sensitive animals tend to congregate during the winter near the hot water outlets of power plants, but they will disappear as power companies switch to cleaner energy sources due to climate change. climatic. Florida springs, whose temperatures remain constant through winter, are also experiencing water quality issues and declining flows as they come under pressure from groundwater withdrawals for bottling, industrial and residential use.

While some Indian River Lagoon restoration projects are underway, a comprehensive effort would likely cost $5 billion and take about 20-30 years. Conservation groups say the number of manatees lost in last year’s mortality accounted for 13% of the state’s population and that at least half of the deaths were linked to starvation and malnutrition in the state. fragile lagoon.

The conservation groups, represented by Earthjustice, filed a separate lawsuit in May against the Environmental Protection Agency. This lawsuit targets nutrient pollution at the heart of harmful algal blooms and seagrass losses in the Indian River Lagoon.

The groups say nutrient pollution is linked to sewage treatment discharges, septic tank leaks and fertilizer runoff, among other sources. The groups hope this week’s settlement can help bolster that case, said Pat Rose, aquatic biologist and executive director of the Save the Manatee Club.

“From that perspective, then you can extrapolate that if the seagrass beds themselves are specifically designated as critical habitat, … the EPA should not be allowed to harm that critical habitat for manatees,” he said. declared. “So it all fits into the big picture.”

This story was produced in partnership with Inside Climate News.

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