Federal agency moves toward potentially reclassifying manatees as ‘endangered’
Citizen petitions to elevate manatees from ‘threatened’ to the more urgent status of ‘endangered’ may be warranted, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which announced on Wednesday its plans to move forward with a more in-depth analysis of the species’ current outlook.
The announcement follows the federal agency’s initial, 90-day reviews of two Endangered Species Act petitions requesting to reclassify the West Indian manatee as endangered, including the subspecies of Puerto Rico’s Antillean manatee population.
Now, the next step is for FWS to complete a more robust analysis of the manatee populations, using the best available science and information to determine whether or not to grant the petitions’ requests.
That more in-depth analysis will take a lot longer to complete — 12 months, according to FWS State Supervisor Larry Williams, who oversees the agency’s Ecological Services program in Florida.
“We would love to be able to produce it sooner, but the truth is, we just have limits on the number of people that can work on it,” Williams said. “We have a very limited number of staff.”
In 1995, there were only approximately 1,500 manatees in Florida, Williams said. Back then, state and federal wildlife agencies implemented speed zones to curb the number of boats crashing into manatees.
That strategy worked.
“From about 1995 until about 2017, we saw the manatee population go from 1,500 to about 7,000 animals, so it really was recovering well,” Williams said.
That’s why, in 2017, Williams said FWS decided to shift manatees’ then-endangered status down to ‘threatened,’ which is less severe.
A new threat
Now manatees are facing a different threat — one to their food supply.
Eight hundred manatees died in Florida in 2022, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). Although that’s higher than the most recent five-year mortality average, it’s also lower than the 1,100 figure representing Florida manatees that died in 2021.
“Over the past three years, the Indian River Lagoon lost about 15,000 acres of seagrasses. And those seagrasses disappeared because of the poor water quality,” Williams said. “When those seagrasses disappeared, the manatees didn’t have anything to eat, and we had a lot of manatees that died from starvation.”
The two manatee petitions recently reviewed by the agency are ESA petitions, which allow citizens to request adding species to the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. ESA petitions can also request to remove species from the list, and/or reclassify species already on the list.
“We agree that there's enough information [in the petitions] that we need to do the full analysis of the status of that species, and decide whether it should be reclassified or not,” Williams said.
FWS is asking members of the public to submit new scientific and commercial data about the West Indian manatee, plus any other relevant information, especially any new information since the manatee’s 2017 reclassification from endangered to threatened.
Members of the public can submit information relevant to an endangered or threatened species via this government webpage. (If submitting information relevant to this current manatee study, FWS says users should enter docket number FWS-R4-ES-2023-0106 into the search box.)