SARASOTA, Fla. – Congressman Vern Buchanan today continued his efforts to help save the rapidly declining Florida manatee population. The Congressman visited Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium to learn more about manatee research and rehabilitation programs at the facility and discussed his bill, the Manatee Protection Act, with Dr. Michael P. Crosby, president and CEO of Mote Marine.
The Manatee Protection Act, H.R. 4946, which Buchanan introduced with Congressman Darren Soto (D-Fla.), would officially upgrade the West Indian manatee from “threatened” to “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Upgrading their designation under the ESA will not only require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to refocus their attention on manatee population rehabilitation, but also allow for increased federal resources including more funding and personnel.
“I am extremely impressed by the work Mote Marine is doing to conserve manatee populations right here in our own backyard,” said Buchanan. “In addition to this vital research, upgrading their status under the Endangered Species Act is absolutely critical to protecting these beloved mammals from further decimation. I look forward to working with Dr. Crosby and his incredible team at Mote Marine to do everything possible to protect these gentle giants in Florida.”
Mote Marine’s Manatee Research Program (MRP) conducts year-round studies of manatee ecology, distribution, habitat use, genetics, and population status in Florida. The program also provides advice on manatee conservation and research actions throughout Florida and the wider Caribbean. The Mote MRP is one of three organizations, alone with FWS and the U.S. Geological Survey Sirenian Project, that organizes and maintains a statewide Manatee Photo Identification System catalog.
Dr. Crosby said during the visit. “I really thank the congressman for being such a great champion for our manatees, a champion for science-based management, a champion for our oceans and coastal environment and all the support of the congressman and our entire delegation up in Washington, D.C..”
According to Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), 957 manatees have died since the beginning of the year. That number has already shattered the previous record of 830 deaths in all of 2013. FWS estimates that there are only around 6,500 West Indian manatees in the southeastern United States, meaning that nearly 15% of the West Indian manatee population has been lost in 2021 alone.
Most experts attribute the soaring manatee death count to a significant loss of seagrass along the Atlantic coast, which is causing many manatees to starve to death, as well as a worsening bout of red tide in the Gulf. They also face continued threats from habitat loss and watercraft collisions.
In 2016, Buchanan formally objected to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service downgrading the manatee’s ESA designation from endangered to threatened, noting that the FWS may have been using outdated data to support the reduction in protection. Buchanan was concerned the manatee’s population would decline if their status was downgraded to threatened. The manatee was previously listed as an endangered species dating back to 1966.
In addition to Dr. Crosby, the Manatee Protection Act has received strong support from leading animal welfare groups including the Save the Manatees Club, the Florida Wildlife Federation and Animal Wellness Action.
In a June letter to FWS, Buchanan called on the agency to upgrade the manatee from “threatened” to “endangered,” citing the degradation of the water quality in manatee habitats, growing levels of water pollution and an increase in harmful algal blooms that kill off seagrass.
The U.S. House recently passed a Buchanan measure to transfer $2 million to FWS to examine the record number of manatee deaths in Florida this year and report to Congress on ways to protect the species.