Manatees are starving in Florida waters, only five years after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) took them off the Endangered Species list.

In the 1960s and ’70s, the West Indian manatee, which is native to Florida waters, was down to only a few hundred individuals. In 2016, the year’s survey reported 6250 manatees, enough to put them over the threshold of being moved from ‘endangered’ status to merely ‘threatened.’ A success to some, a concerning change to others who worried it would erode the marine mammals’ protections.

In 2021, over 1,100 manatees were found dead, mostly due to starvation. So far this year, 562 deaths have been reported and dozens more have been rescued to be put into captive care around the country.

The culprit? Water pollution. Agricultural and urban runoff has been killing off the seagrass beds that are the manatees’ main food source.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Save the Manatee club, three environmental watchdog organizations, took the matter to court beginning in 2020, when the first mass die-off was reported. Their point of contention is that the critical habitat designation concerning manatees, the legislation that protects the biome needed to support them, hasn’t been updated since 1976 and is inadequate.

The Fish and Wildlife Service “has delayed revising critical habitat for a decade, and now the manatee’s predicament is so dire that revising critical habitat can no longer be put on the back burner,” said Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club,

In a court settlement announced Wednesday, the FWS has agreed to propose a revision by September, 2024.

“Safeguarding the places where manatees live will help put these incredibly imperiled animals back on a path to recovery,” said Ragan Whitlock, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Protecting the habitat of these magnificent creatures is long overdue, but we’re happy these safeguards will soon be in place.”

Photo: Shutterstock