ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — A Florida lawmaker is asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consider the beloved manatee as "endangered" rather than its current "threatened" status.
It's an urgent request considering the dramatic increase of manatee deaths in 2021. Since the start of the year through June 4, there have been 782 deaths, according to preliminary data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
During that same period in 2020, there were 311 deaths reported -- a 151 percent year-over-year increase. FWC data shows this year may very well shatter 2018's total of 824 manatee deaths.
"Time is of the essence," Republican U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan wrote in a letter.
The U.S. Department of the Interior downlisted the West Indian manatee from "endangered" to "threatened" in 2017 as the animal's population likely surpassed 6,600, the FWC said at the time, adding that it was a great improvement when just a few hundred manatees remained in the 1970s.
According to the FWC now, there are an estimated 7,520 animals today.
Buchanan said a relisting to "endangered" would provide "for the highest levels of federal protection and conservation efforts."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in March declared the spike in deaths as an "unusual mortality event" following urging from Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy. It allows the federal agency to begin working with local groups to figure out what's causing the deaths, how the population is being maintained and what role the environment is playing.
All signs, so far, point to a reduction in food availability for the manatee. They graze on seagrass, but an over-structuration of nutrients in Florida's waters has killed off much of the vegetation.
"There is a broad consensus among marine biologists and conservationists that the driving force behind the rapidly growing death rate is the degradation of the water quality in manatee habitats, growing levels of water pollution and an increase of harmful algal blooms that kill off seagrass," Buchanan wrote. "As seagrass disappears, manatees starve to death.
"Wildlife observers noted earlier this year that many of the dead manatees washing up on the shores were seriously emaciated."
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