The Fight for Survival of Florida’s Iconic Manatees: What’s Happening?

The fight for the survival of Florida’s iconic manatees is a battle that has captured the attention of conservationists and animal lovers alike. These gentle marine creatures, known for their slow pace and friendly demeanor, are facing an alarming decline in their population. Despite the efforts of various organizations to protect them, the manatees’ struggle continues.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission tells us there are now around 7,520 manatees in Florida. That’s a lot less than what we used to have. One big reason for this drop is that there hasn’t been enough seagrass, which is what manatees eat. Without enough food, many of these manatees are going hungry and getting sick, with hundreds dying from not having enough to eat. The Tampa Bay Times reported that in 2022 alone, at least 800 manatees died because they didn’t have enough food.

But it’s not all bad news for the manatees. It has been reported that there are people who want to list the manatee as a threatened species. This could mean more help and protection for the manatees, and maybe even a chance to increase their numbers again. 

As we look into this issue more, it’s important to understand why the manatees are struggling and what’s being done to help them.

From Threatened to Endangered: A Possible Reclassification

Florida’s manatees might be moving back onto the endangered species list. These gentle sea creatures were once considered endangered, but in 2017, they were moved to the “threatened” category because their numbers started to improve. However, things have changed, and now officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are rethinking that decision.

The reason for this is that a lot of manatees are dying. According to the Federal Register, two petitions led to the Service announcing a 90-day review of the West Indian manatee’s status, which includes populations in Florida and Puerto Rico. This came after realizing the alarming rate of manatee deaths and concerns about pollution and water quality.

  • The Reclassification Process: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a process for changing an animal’s status. They have to look at all the information they have about the animal, and then make a decision. This process is now happening for the manatee.
  • Reasons for Reclassification: There are several reasons why the manatee might move back to the endangered list. One big reason is that a lot of manatees are dying because they don’t have enough food. Water pollution and loss of seagrass have caused thousands of manatee deaths, as reported by WTSP.
  • Impact of Reclassification: If the manatee is moved back to the endangered list, it could get more protection. This could help to stop the number of manatees from dropping any further.

The Impact of Red Tide Blooms on Manatee Mortality

A “Red Tide” might sound pretty, but it’s a big problem. According to the National Ocean Service, a red tide happens when there’s a harmful algal bloom. This means that certain types of algae, which are tiny plants in the ocean, grow fast and out of control.

These red tides can cause a lot of problems. One reason is that they can make the water change color. The name “red tide” comes from how the water can look red or brown because there is so much algae. Another reason is that these algae can produce toxins, or poisons, that can harm or even kill sea creatures, including manatees.

Red tides happen around the world, but in the US, we often use the term to talk about what happens when a specific type of algae called Karenia brevis blooms in the Gulf of Mexico. This is also known as the Florida red tide, according to Wikipedia.

  • Effects on Seagrass: The red tide can hurt seagrass, which is a major food source for manatees. When the algae from the red tide blocks sunlight, it can stop seagrass from growing.
  • Toxins and Manatees: The toxins produced by the red tide algae can be deadly to manatees. According to National Geographic, these toxins can affect the manatees’ nervous system, causing them to become paralyzed and drown.
  • Starvation: Because of the damage to their food source and the direct impact of the toxins, many manatees are dying from starvation. This has been a significant factor in the recent decline of the manatee population.
  • Increased Mortality Rate: The harmful effects of red tide blooms have led to an increase in manatee mortality rates. In 2021 alone, more than 1,000 manatees died, many of them due to starvation and exposure to red tide toxins.
  • Long-Term Health Effects: Even if manatees survive exposure to red tide toxins, they may suffer long-term health effects. These can include chronic illness, reproductive issues, and decreased lifespan.

Conservationists’ Call to Action

Environmental organizations are raising the alarm about the rapid decline in the manatee population in Florida. According to a report by NBC Miami, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission declared an “unusual mortality event” among manatees in 2020, and the situation has not improved.

These organizations argue that manatees should be reclassified as endangered species to provide them with better protection. The Green Matters article mentioned that the declining manatee population is mostly triggered by water pollution leading to seagrass die-offs, which is the main food source for manatees.

  • Push for Reclassification: Conservation groups like Defenders of Wildlife have been advocating for the reclassification of manatees as endangered species. They argue that this change would bring more focus and resources to the conservation efforts, as highlighted in an article on their website, Defenders.
  • Addressing Starvation: As reported by the Tampa Bay Times, over 2,000 manatees have died mostly from starvation from January 2021 through March 10, 2023. Environmental groups argue that addressing the root causes of this food shortage, including water pollution and loss of seagrass, should be a priority.
  • Averting Population Collapse: With the current manatee population estimated at no more than 6,800 according to NPR, conservationists warn that the high mortality rates are unsustainable and could lead to population collapse if not addressed urgently.
  • Promoting Sustainable Practices: Conservationists insist on the need for sustainable practices to preserve manatee habitats. They call for stricter regulations on water pollution, which is a major factor in the decline of seagrass beds, as per Green Matters.

Federal Response and Review of Manatee Protections

Federal wildlife officials are currently reviewing the status of manatees, considering whether they should be classified as an endangered species. According to a report by Courthouse News, this decision is the first step toward affording greater protections for these marine mammals.

The review was launched following significant public outcry and mounting evidence of the severe threats faced by manatees. An article in Tampa Bay Times highlighted that federal wildlife officials downlisted West Indian manatees from an “endangered” to a “threatened” species in 2017, a move that is now being scrutinized.

  • Public Support: Over 18,000 people have urged federal officials to boost manatee protections, demonstrating strong public support for stronger Endangered Species Act protection for manatees, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
  • Potential Restoration of Protections: The current review could result in the restoration of endangered species protections for manatees. This is known as a 90-day finding and represents the first procedural step toward providing much greater protections for the species, as reported by Harvard Animal Law & Policy Clinic.
  • Reviewing Conservation Efforts: The purpose of the review is to assess ongoing conservation efforts and ensure that listed species are appropriately classified under the Endangered Species Act, as stated by the Marine Mammal Commission.
  • Legal Actions: Some conservation groups are planning to sue federal wildlife officials, alleging a failure to adequately protect the manatees. This was reported by AP News.

The Future Rests in Our Hands

The fate of Florida’s beloved manatees lies in the actions we take now. There’s an urgent need for improved protections to prevent further decline of the manatee population. By reclassifying manatees as endangered, we could direct more resources to saving them. This would involve tackling problems like water pollution and seagrass loss, which are the root causes of manatee starvation. With public support and legal actions underway, there’s hope for change. Every effort counts in this crucial fight to save Florida’s iconic manatees.

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