Proposed bill would re-classify manatees as endangered

During an especially deadly year for Florida's manatees, some local lawmakers are working to extend more federal protection to the suffering sea cows.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 890 manatees have already died this year, a die-off that has been declared an unusual mortality event. The first eight months of this year exceeds the previous record of 830 manatee deaths, recorded in all of 2013. 

Manatees’ primary food source is seagrass. One of the main causes of manatee deaths in Florida is due to starvation because poor water quality has caused significant seagrass loss. Ride tide has also been a factor.

Florida manatees had been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1973. Manatees were listed as endangered until 2017, when they were downlisted to "threatened."

In 2017, there were 6,000 manatees in Florida thanks to conservation efforts that helped grow the manatee population. In 2019, the manatee population had dropped to 5,733.

Now, Rep. Vern Buchanan of Sarasota and Rep. Darren Soto, of Kissimmee introduced new legislation to protect manatees. The bipartisan Manatee Protection Act would officially upgrade the West Indian manatee from "threatened" to "endangered" under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). 

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That change in status would require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to refocus their attention on manatee population rehabilitation. It would also allow for increased federal resources to be put toward manatee rehabilitation.

"Manatees are beloved, iconic mammals in Florida," said Buchanan. "This year’s record-breaking number of manatee deaths is staggering and extremely concerning, which is why upgrading their ESA status is absolutely critical. We must do everything we can to protect these gentle giants and Florida’s official marine mammal."

The legislation is backed by leading animal welfare groups including Animal Wellness Action and the Save the Manatees Club.