The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) will update its Manatee critical habitat protections for the first time since 1976, due to a compromise reached on Wednesday between several nonprofits and the service.
The Center for Biological Diversity, along with the Save the Manatee and Wildlife Defenders Club, has asked the agency to update its manatee protections for more than a decade, Ragan Whitlock, a lawyer for the center, told CNN. Reviewing critical habitat is a crucial step in implementing much-needed environmental protection for the species, Whitlock said.
“FWS, more than a decade ago, told us these revisions were warranted,” Whitlock said. But the agency did not update the critical life protections due to budget constraints and the priority of other projects, according to the lawyer.
“Basically the manatee has been put on for over a decade,” he said. “We’re glad FWS is making them a priority again, because manatees couldn’t wait any longer.”
Florida manatees are listed as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The large, aquatic mammals are closely related to elephants and feed on underwater vegetation, such as seagrass.
Whitlock explained that the manatee’s critical habitat protections are essentially a “list of places we knew manatees live,” created in 1976.
“Not only has that list of places changed a lot in the last 45 years, because the environment is changing, which means indicating critical habitat has changed,” Whitlock said. “In 1978, two years after those original names, the Endangered Species Act was amended. Now, all critical habitat names require the service to identify physical and biological traits that are essential to the conservation of the species.
As for the manatees, Whitlock points to seagrass and access to hot springs as critical habitat features that must be protected to protect manatees. In recent years, manatees have experienced a series of starvation deaths from the loss of the seagrass they usually rely for subsistence.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission describes this sting in manatee deaths, starting in 2020, as “An unusual death incident.” Only in 2021, 1,100 Florida manatees died – About 13% of the total Atlantic population, Whitlock said.
Whitlock said one particularly crucial habitat is the Indian River Lagoon, located on Florida’s Atlantic coast. Manatees have a “loyalty” to the places where they once ate, and will return in search of food – although the lagoon’s seagrass has declined significantly.
They are “starving to death in this lagoon,” Whitlock said. “That’s a huge thing.”
Access to warm water habitats that manatees need to survive is also important, according to Whitlock.
FWS will have to propose new critical habitat revisions for the manatee by September 2024, according to the settlement. In the meantime, Whitlock hopes the agency will use the “best available science to find where the manatees depend, places that are absolutely critical to their survival, traits that are critical to their survival.”
“The manatee has a long way to go. It’s been bad for the last two years, “said Whitlock. “This is a really important first step for that recovery. You can’t protect the manatee or give it a long-term chance of surviving without protecting its home.”
And protecting manatees is also likely to help protect other endangered and endangered species.
“When you protect an area for the Florida manatee, it affects all endangered species that call Florida home.”