Feds said manatees weren’t endangered — now they’re dying in droves

In cold weather, manatees cluster together and seek warmer water. Credit: Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission

Two months ago, everybody got pretty excited when a Citrus County boat captain snapped photos showing some prankster had scraped out five letters in the algae growing on a manatee’s back. The letters spelled out the name of a certain former president now residing in Palm Beach.

Amid the widespread outrage, people suggested various punishments for the prankster. My idea was to scrape another five-letter word into his or her forehead: IDIOT.

Now, nobody suggested that the guy whose name was on the manatee had actually done the deed, signing it like a work of wicked art to be hung in an Evil Louvre. But from what I’ve been hearing this week, that guy, the former Oval Office occupant, did something even worse, and to far more than one manatee.

Four years ago, a few months after the start of his administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that manatees — which had been on the endangered list since the first endangered list was drawn up — were now doing much, much better.

In fact, the feds said, they were doing so well that they could be taken down a notch. Instead of “endangered,” they would be reclassified as “threatened.”

A Florida manatee. Credit: Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission

“While it is not out of the woods, we believe the manatee is no longer on the brink of extinction,” Larry Williams, head of the agency’s South Florida office, said during a news conference that day in March 2017. (Ironically, the agency announced this step the day after celebrating “Manatee Appreciation Day” on social media.)

The feds promised that no one would even notice the change. They promised that manatees, Florida’s official marine mammal, would still get the same level of protection they had enjoyed before.

Fast forward to this month. Over the past couple of weeks, headlines have been trumpeting the fact that more than 400 manatees have died in just the first two months of the year, an alarming spike that’s well beyond what’s considered normal. As of March 5, the total was 435 and still climbing.

Such a spike, according to a Fort Myers News Press story, means we’re on pace for a year in which total deaths could top 2,000, or roughly a third of the total manatee population.

Usually, state wildlife experts go out and rescue manatees in distress and pick up the carcasses of those that die, so they can determine the cause of death. This year, because of the pandemic and the state’s budgetary limitations, they have only been able to get to about a third of the dead. The rest have been left to rot, which I’m sure really impresses the tourists.

Still, the experts have got a good idea of what’s driving this.

The largest number of manatee deaths so far — 179 — occurred in Brevard County, and specifically in what was once one of the most productive estuaries in North America, the Indian River Lagoon. There was a time when the 156 miles of the lagoon boasted more than 600 species of fish and more than 300 kinds of birds, not to mention dolphins and manatees galore.

Cold snaps such as the ones we had this winter drive manatees to huddle together in warm-water refuges like the shallows of the lagoon. Without a refuge, the cold water can kill them. But their survival in these refuges hinges on them finding enough seagrass to eat to sustain them until the weather warms up.

Take a wild guess what else has been wiped out in the Indian River Lagoon.

Since 2009, 58 percent of the seagrass in the lagoon system has disappeared, killed off by excess fertilizer from people’s lawns, the stinky excess of leaking septic tanks, and other nutrient pollution that fueled repeated toxic algae blooms. Over the past decade, dolphins, pelicans, and yes, even manatees, have perished there as a result, and now it’s happening again.

“Environmental conditions in portions of the Indian River Lagoon remain a concern,” the state wildlife commission reported on its website. “Preliminary information indicates that a reduction in food availability is a contributing factor.”

In other words, so many thousands of acres of seagrass have been killed by human carelessness, stupidity and greed that the desperate manatees starved to death. The condition of the dead shows they were suffering from “severe malnutrition,” said Patrick Rose, longtime executive director of the Save the Manatee Club.

This wasn’t supposed to happen — at least, according to the federal wildlife agency in charge of protecting them.

Playing the data game

First, a little history lesson: In 1967, when biologists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were drawing up the first endangered species list, they weren’t sure if manatees qualified.

They consulted with an expert from Florida: Craig Phillips of St. Petersburg, a biologist who at the time was the head of the National Aquarium and had previously served as the first curator of the Miami Seaquarium.

I interviewed him once. He was in his 80s then but still sharp, especially when it came to the subject of manatees. He had not only displayed manatees at the Seaquarium but had actually tasted manatee meat once. He described it as delicious (no, I did not ask for the recipe).

In 1967, Phillips told the federal wildlife biologists that he was convinced manatees deserved to be classified as endangered, but not based on their numbers. They spent so much of their time underwater that counting them with any accuracy was all but impossible, he explained.

Instead, he said, manatees should be considered endangered because of the threats they faced from humans, particularly from speeding boats and waterfront development that wiped out their habitat and polluted the water.

Phillips’ argument proved persuasive, and so manatees were put on the list. There they remained for a solid five decades — until, in 2017, the agency concluded that the 6,000 or so swimming in Florida’s waters no longer met the definition of “endangered.”

Usually, the only way for a species to leave the endangered list is if the dire circumstances that landed them on the list have abated. But this time, the feds — facing a lawsuit from a libertarian group called the Pacific Legal Foundation — chose to do things differently.

The threats from boats and loss of habitat had not disappeared or even been much alleviated. In fact, boaters had killed a record number of manatees the year before, topping 100 for the first time. (The number of boating deaths has broken the previous year’s record every year since then, by the way.)

But that’s OK! According to a computer model created by a U.S. Geological Survey scientist, manatees were about to bounce back! They were going to overcome all obstacles and swim into a rosy future. Their population would even double to 12,000 over the next 50 years. Woo-hoo! Drinks all around!

“This is truly a success story,” Williams said then.

But there were a few problems with this rosy scenario.

One was that outside scientists who reviewed the proposal to take manatees off the endangered list said it was a bad idea. One said that, instead of science, the agency’s proposal “seems to be based on hope.” (The scientists were ignored.)

Another was that the public opposed it. During the 90-day public comment process, 72 people said they thought knocking manatees down a notch on the list was a good idea. Meanwhile, nearly 87,000 comments and petition signatures said, “No way, don’t you do it to those lovely old sea cows!” (The public was ignored.)

Another was that the Save the Manatee Club and other environmental groups strongly objected, arguing the government should not base such a big decision on a computer model that had already had to be tweaked a number of times in the past because of, well, let’s just say failures to jibe with reality.

“I don’t think it captures what is happening or what is likely to happen in Florida,” Rose said then. (The Save the Manatee Club was ignored, too.)

You see, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was at the time under the control of an anti-regulation, anti-environment, pro-business real estate developer with no love for the Endangered Species Act. Thus, the agency plunged ahead with its decision to “downlist” manatees from “endangered” to “threatened.”

As with anything involving a computer model, what determines the outcome is what you feed into it. The USGS scientist who created the computer model, Michael Runge, spelled out in a scientific paper that he had made a number of assumptions that were key to his findings.

One of his assumptions, he wrote, concerned the “extensive loss of seagrass habitat … in the Indian River Lagoon,” which had led to a lot of manatees dying of starvation in 2011 and 2012. The assumption Runge made was this: “The phenomenon in the IRL is a short-lived event that will not persist as a chronic source of mortality.”

Oops.

“Can I reasonably say, ‘I told you so,’ now?” Rose asked me this week. He contends the feds could have done much more to help the state save manatees but withheld support because of the prior administration’s policies.

I emailed Runge about the current die-off. In his reply, Runge said the 2017 model “still contains a great deal of relevant information that management agencies can refer to.” But he also told me, “This winter’s IRL die-off does raise questions about whether the assumptions in our baseline scenario were correct.”

Time to reconsider?

This has all been coming for a long time. The boating industry began pushing for manatees to be taken off federal and state endangered lists as far back as 1999.

The boat manufacturers and sellers’ motive was simple. They believed that if they could knock manatees off the list, then boaters wouldn’t have to put up with all the regulations that made them slow down. Because driving your boat really fast is a constitutional right covered by the First Amendment’s guarantee of free expression or something.

The industry nearly succeeded in 2007, when the state wildlife commission stood on the verge of voting for the change. But then-Gov. Charlie Crist, an avid boater himself, stepped in and told them not to do it. Turns out he’s a big manatee fan (not to mention a fan of Jimmy Buffett, co-founder of the Save the Manatee Club).

Now Crist is a congressman representing St. Petersburg. In light of the big die-off, he’s officially requested the federal wildlife service reconsider its 2017 decision on the manatee’s status.

“It’s disturbing to me” what’s happened, he told me. “Manatees are such a beloved creature. They’re in the heart and soul of everyone in Florida.”

Crist and Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Orlando, both Democrats, are also calling on the federal agency to officially declare this an “unusual mortality event.” Such a declaration would prompt a full-fledged investigation aimed at determining the cause, minimizing more deaths, and examining environmental factors.

I tried contacting the wildlife service to ask them about what Crist and Williams were requesting, but they failed to respond. They may be squirming too much to talk on the phone. Any such federal investigation would wind up pointing the finger squarely in the mirror. And then someone’s going to need to scrape a certain word onto their foreheads.