After record Florida manatee deaths, environmental groups sue to upgrade habitat protections

The lawsuit came after the state had 1,100 manatee deaths in 2021, with many of the sea cows dying of starvation.

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After a record 1,100 manatees died last year in Florida, environmental groups filed a lawsuit Tuesday seeking to force federal wildlife officials to upgrade habitat protections.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and the Save the Manatee Club filed the lawsuit in federal district court in Washington, D.C., against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The groups said the wildlife agency did not take final action on a 2008 petition to revise what is known as a “critical habitat” designation for manatees. The lawsuit describes such designations as key “for ensuring the survival and effectuating the recovery of imperiled species such as the Florida manatee.”

“Meanwhile, Florida manatees and their habitat continue to face dire and imminent threats, including the loss of warm-water refuges and poor water quality that causes persistent harmful algal blooms and a profound loss of seagrass, a crucial food source, leading to mass starvation,” the lawsuit said. “Compounding these threats are a growing number of boat strikes and severe weather events caused by climate disruption.”

The lawsuit came after the state had 1,100 manatee deaths in 2021, with many of the sea cows dying of starvation caused by the decline of seagrass beds that are prime foraging areas. Many of the manatee deaths occurred in the Indian River Lagoon along the state’s East Coast, with 358 of the deaths in Brevard County, according to preliminary totals posted online by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The lawsuit said an estimated 13 percent of the state’s manatees died last year.

Under the federal Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service designates areas of critical habitat to help in the recovery of endangered or threatened species, according to the lawsuit. The agency in 1976 designated waterways that were important areas for manatees.

But the environmental groups contend in the lawsuit that the agency did not revise the designation after changes were made in 1978 to the Endangered Species Act. They also allege that the agency did not properly act on a petition that the groups filed in 2008 seeking to revise critical habitat.

“In particular, FWS has failed to propose and finalize a regulation to revise the critical habitat designation for the Florida manatee, despite finding in January 2010 that a revision of critical habitat is ‘warranted’ in order to provide for the conservation of the manatee,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit alleges that the agency violated a law known as the Administrative Procedure Act and the Endangered Species Act. It seeks a court order requiring the agency to revise the critical habitat.

The Fish and Wildlife Service in 2017 changed the listing of manatees from endangered to threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
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