Manatee Protection Act would reclassify manatees as endangered. Now what happens?

Max Chesnes
Treasure Coast Newspapers

If Congress doesn't pass the Manatee Protection Act to list the species as endangered, a federal wildlife assessment would help decide whether the reclassification is necessary — and that could take months.

Changing policy under the Endangered Species Act requires a meticulous process, in this case to assess the toll this year's record manatee die-off has taken on their population, particularly in the Indian River Lagoon.

At least 905 manatee deaths were recorded between Jan. 1 and Aug. 6, mostly in Brevard County, according to state wildlife data. The previous record was 830 in 2013.

In response to the die-off, an increasing number of lawmakers and conservationists — even legendary singer Jimmy Buffett — have endorsed reversing the 2017 reclassification of West Indian manatees from "endangered" to "threatened."

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An emaciated manatee was sighted off the pier at the Manatee Hammock Campground in Titusville eating algae off the rocks on Wednesday, June 30, 2021. State wildlife crews are working on finding the animal again and assessing it for a potential rescue, according to Save the Manatee Club.

They say it's an urgent step toward long-term protection. 

Others argue there are more immediate priorities, such as rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing manatees back into the wild. They worry the reclassification process could divert federal resources made available under the Unusual Mortality Event designation. 

Pat Rose of Save the Manatee Club praised the proposed legislation as a decisive step in the right direction, but hopes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) won't be distracted from its immediate day-to-day activities to help slow the die-off and habitat loss.

"So we're saying 'yes,' they should (reclassify them), but (the service) shouldn't stop doing what they need to do," said Rose, an aquatic biologist and executive director of the Maitland-based nonprofit advocacy group.

Feds reviewing manatee health

The Manatee Protection Act hopes to supersede a lengthy federal process, according to Savannah Glasgow, spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Longboat Key), who filed the bipartisan bill Monday with U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, (D-Kissimmee).

"The Secretary of the Interior shall include the species known as the ‘'West Indian manatee' ... in the endangered species list," according to the bill. 

"Endangered" means they are at risk of extinction in all or most of its range. "Threatened" means a species is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future. FWS reclassified manatees from endangered to threatened in 2017.

Reversing that decision is "critical," Buchanan said in a June 14 letter to FWS Principal Deputy Director Martha Williams.

"Staff are aware of the congressional efforts and high interest in our response," FWS spokesperson Jennifer Koches told TCPalm Thursday. "We remain focused on working with partners to address the underlying causes and preparing for future responses."

FWS previously had explained to TCPalm that an ongoing species assessment launched in June 2020 — roughly six months before manatee deaths began to spike — would inform the agency on the best next steps.

The Species Status Assessment is a risk assessment that provides "a single source" of biological information needed for policy decisions, Koches said. The study wouldn't determine whether to reclassify manatees, just help policymakers decide what to do.

The usual three-step assessment process, which Koches said normally takes 12-18 months, includes: 

  • Compiling the best available information on the species, including its taxonomy, life history and habitat. Biologists also compile a list of ecological needs at the individual, population and species level.
  • Then describing the current condition of the species’ habitat and probable explanations for past and ongoing changes in abundance and distribution.
  • Then forecasting the species’ response to probable future scenarios of environmental conditions and conservation efforts.
U.S. Rep. Brian Mast speaks to the media at the Port Mayaca lock on Tuesday, June 1, 2021, addressing a revised Lake Okeechobee plan to send more water south to protect the surrounding estuaries. "The reason everybody is coming together is you have representation from the east coast here, you have representation from the west coast of Florida, and you have representation from the Everglades from the south, Mast said. "Coming together to say we're moving forward to ask the Corp of Engineers, as a united front, to support plan CC with some modifications that we've put forward to help benefit all of these areas of Florida that have been traditionally hammered by poor management of Lake Okeechobee."

Other support for reclassification

U.S. Rep Brian Mast, R-Palm City, also wants manatees reclassified as endangered.

“The manatees are victims of the decades-long mismanagement of Florida’s waterways that resulted in the destruction of their habitats," he said. "We need to get at the root causes of that problem. And in the meantime, we should offer every protection possible to these iconic mammals.”  

Mast joined a bipartisan group of Florida legislators July 27 in urging the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to address the declining water quality in the 156-mile-long Indian River Lagoon. 

A federal investigation launched in March was a good start, the delegation told NOAA. Now they want federal funds to address the causes of harmful algal blooms that choke seagrass — the manatees' main food source.

After returning from an aerial tour of Lake Okeechobee, observing blue-green algae from the air, Gov. Ron DeSantis discusses the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual on Monday, May 10, 2021, at Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Martin County. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently re-writing its lake operations for the first time since 2008.

Gov. Ron DeSantis' office declined to comment on whether manatees should be reclassified, and directed TCPalm's question to state environment officials. 

DeSantis did not mention the die-off during a July 21 news conference, nor a similar event June 17, about the Florida west coast's red tide crisis. The algae bloom likely contributed to 33 manatee deaths this year, compared to nine in 2020, according to data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). 

The Clean Water Coalition, a nonprofit representing over 1,000 businesses and organizations in Indian River County, urged urgent action and a "full-court press" from DeSantis, who also has rejected calls to issue a state of emergency.

The coalition wants the governor to push for reclassification and stricter regulations to curb polluted rainfall runoff from fouling the lagoon, according to a June 30 letter. 

"We desperately need additional funding and regulation to clean up the waters of the state so that these natural systems have a chance to recover," the coalition wrote. "Our economy and health depend upon it."

The Stuart City Commission in late June urged FWS to reclassify manatees and add the St. Lucie River as their critical habitat. It's unusual for the board to approve resolutions on federal wildlife status, but the situation is dire, the Vice Mayor Merritt Matheson said.

"This isn't how stuff gets listed on the endangered species list, or relisted," Matheson said. "But a municipality supporting it or being on the tip of the spear, causing the alarm (and) asking for further studies certainly helps."

What's behind the 2017 reclassification?

Any reclassification should be driven by science and follow the law, not politics, said Christina Martin, a senior attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation.

In two lawsuits that resulted in the 2017 downgrading, Martin represented Save Crystal River, a gulf coast nonprofit. 

"The manatee population is bigger than it was 10 years ago and much bigger than it was 20 years ago," Martin said in a statement. "The number of manatee deaths each year does not tell you whether the total population is growing or shrinking or stabilized." 

Every five years, FWS reviews each endangered species to ensure its classification is accurate. When the agency reviewed the manatee population in 2017, biologists cited an increase in recommending the downgrade.

FWC estimated the population at 6,250 manatees, including 47% on the Atlantic coast, in its annual statewide count in 2016, compared to 3,113 in 2006 and 2,630 in 1996. 

"This was good news because it then meant that the scientific evidence determined that the manatee was no longer in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range," Save Crystal River's board said in a statement to TCPalm. "More good news was that the manatee still received the same protections as a threatened species as it did when it was classified as endangered." 

As a "threatened" species, manatees are protected by federal and state law, but the classification means little for how FWC is responding to the die-off, officials said.

"Nothing changes for us," FWC spokesperson Carol Lyn Parrish said. "We're going to continue the same work from the science side, rescue side and research side." 

Critics of the 2017 reclassification say it focused only on population numbers without taking into account habitat loss and lack of effective regulatory measures to address it.

"The manatees are a warning sign about the state of our waters," said Alisa Coe, a senior attorney at Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization.

"How many warnings do we need, year after year, with increased water pollution problems across the state?" Coe said. "It is time for us to get serious about protecting our waterways. We are running out of time." 

Endangered Species Act

The Endangered Species Act was established in 1973 "to protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend," according to the FWS. To classify a species as "threatened" or "endangered," the agency review these variables:

  • Disease or predation
  • Inadequacy of existing protection
  • Damage or destruction of a species’ habitat
  • Other natural or manmade factors that affect their continued existence
  • Overutilization of the species for commercial, recreational, scientific or educational purposes.

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Max Chesnes is a TCPalm environment reporter covering issues facing the Indian River Lagoon, St. Lucie River and Lake Okeechobee. You can keep up with Max on Twitter @MaxChesnes, email him at max.chesnes@tcpalm.com and give him a call at 772-978-2224.

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