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Florida Manatees Are Starving En Masse. Conservation Groups Want Them Back on Endangered List

The sea mammals were taken off the endangered list in 2017, and their numbers have only decreased since.

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A manatee swims among seagrass in the Homosassa River on October 05, 2021 in Homosassa, Florida.
A manatee swims among seagrass in the Homosassa River on October 05, 2021 in Homosassa, Florida.
Photo: Joe Raedle (Getty Images)

Environmental groups launched a petition on Monday to once again list manatees as endangered, as hundreds of the beloved sea cows die from starvation.

The petition filed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service argues that the manatees should not have been taken off the endangered species list back in 2017. Since their removal from the list, manatee populations have rapidly decreased. From 2017 to 2019, the Florida manatee population has decreased by about 6% annually, the petition explained.


This sharp decline comes from several factors, a major one being the loss of seagrass beds along the state’s coast. Pollution from leaking septic tanks, development, and fertilizer runoff has contributed to algae blooms that have killed off seagrass, the Associated Press reported. “In the Indian River Lagoon on Florida’s east coast, excessive nutrient pollution has caused algae blooms that have completely extirpated seagrasses from 58% of their previous area between 2011 and 2019,” the petition says. Recreational activities along the coast have also lead to boat strikes that injure and kill manatees, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

1,100 Florida manatees died in 2021, according to data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. And 2022 hasn’t been much better: As of November 4, a recorded 735 manatees have died this year.


Conservation groups and Florida agencies have implemented different strategies to protect the imperiled manatees. Late last year, state officials announced a lettuce feeding program to help manatees survive the loss of seagrass. Earlier this year, the state had to extend the feeding program because the gentle giants were still starving. Florida officials will feed manatees lettuce yet again this year to avoid more malnutrition die-offs, the Tampa Bay Times recently reported. 

But tossing lettuce to these hefty sea mammals wasn’t supposed to be a long-term solution, and it doesn’t address the pollution that is destroying seagrass beds along the Florida coast. The conservation groups behind this week’s petition argue that putting the species back on the endangered list will enable agencies to have the policy and resources needed to further protect the manatees. “Existing regulations do not adequately protect manatees. In parts of Florida and other countries in the species’ range, recreational users harass manatees, and outside the United States, manatees still face poaching,” the petition said.