Conservation Groups Threaten to Sue after 900 Manatee Deaths

More than 900 manatees have died in the state of Florida so far this year, a little more than double last year's numbers. In response to the staggering data, several conservation groups announced plans to file a lawsuit against the federal government over critical habitat areas for the species. The notice of intent comes one week after it was reported that two Florida congressmen said they introduced legislation that would grant manatees with endangered status.

On Monday, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and Save the Manatee Club filed a notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) over violations of both the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). In the letter shared by the Center for Biological Diversity, the groups alleged that FWS failed to update designated critical habitat areas for the Florida manatee in accordance with federal law.

"Revised critical habitat is necessary to provide these imperiled marine mammals life-saving protections, to enhance their recovery, and to reduce the risk of their extinction," the letter reads.

FWS designated critical habitat for the Florida manatee in 1976; however, the groups claim that amendments made to the ESA in 1978 required that critical habitat areas take into account "physical and biological features essential to the conservation of the species."

But the groups also claim that FWS never updated critical habitat areas to include those considerations, and as a result, "the critical habitat designations for the Florida manatee only list specific waterways known to be concentration areas for manatees in 1976, and not any of the physical or biological features that are essential to the conservation of the species."

As it turns out, these specifications go a long way in protecting the species.

According to research cited in the letter, manatees face several "habitat-based threats," including the loss of warm water refuge and poor water quality. Additional threats include boat strikes and the loss of seagrass, which manatees rely upon as a food source.

"At least 50 percent of these deaths have been in the Indian River Lagoon where the suspected cause of mortality is starvation and malnutrition due to nutrient pollution killing off local seagrass in important warm water refuge," the letter continues.

They also report that 70 of this year's deaths were a result of boat strikes.

"We are deeply concerned about and actively involved in the protection of the Florida manatee and its habitat," the letter concludes. "We are eager to address these violations without the need for litigation and to discuss with FWS prospects for amicable resolution of these issues at the earliest possible date.

"If FWS does not act within 60 days to correct these violations, however, we will have no choice but to pursue litigation in federal court."

Last week, Florida Representatives Vern Buchanan and Darren Soto introduced legislation to grant manatees endangered status. If passed, the legislation would allow for an increase in federal funding to protect the species.

"Manatees are beloved, iconic mammals in Florida," said Representative Buchanan in last week's statement. "This year's record-breaking number of manatee deaths is staggering and extremely concerning, which is why upgrading their ESA status is absolutely critical."

Representative Soto added: "These mass deaths should alarm us all and incite us to take immediate action to protect these precious mammals."

Florida manatee
Several conservation groups filed a notice of intent to sue the federal government over manatee protections. Florida Representatives Vern Buchanan and Darren Soto introduced legislation to grant manatees endangered status last week. Smith Collection/Gado / Contributor/Getty