ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Florida’s manatees are dying at a record rate and need federal protection for their seaside habitat, environmental groups said in a lawsuit filed Tuesday.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Washington, asks a judge to set deadlines for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to finalize regulations to update the critical habitat designation for manatees.
More than 1,100 manatees died in Florida last year, double the five-year average for such deaths. The main problem is pollution from agricultural, urban and other sources, which triggers algae blooms, killing the seagrass on which manatees depend in winter months.
The lawsuit was filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Defenders of Wildlife and the Save The Manatee Club, which was co-founded by singer Jimmy Buffet. It contends the Fish and Wildlife Service has dragged its heels on the critical habitat designation despite an attempt by the groups to get it done in 2008.
“Meanwhile, Florida manatees and their habitat continue to face dire and imminent threats, including the loss of warm-water refuges and poor water quality that causes harmful algal blooms and a profound loss of seagrass, a crucial food source, leading to mass starvation,” the lawsuit says.
The Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment Tuesday.
Manatees are slow-moving marine mammals that live in Florida estuaries and bays. They migrate to warm-water areas, such as springs and power plants, when the weather turns colder.
Federal and state wildlife officials have embarked on an experimental effort to feed manatees with lettuce and similar greens at a Florida Power & Light plant on the East Coast where manatees typically gather.