(NEW YORK) -- Environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, claiming the agency has failed to help preserve Florida manatee habitats as the species faces rising deaths.
Nearly 1,100 manatees died in 2021, which is roughly 20% of the east coast population of manatees, according to a lawsuit filed by Save the Manatee Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife.
“We've now had almost 300 [die] in 2022,” aquatic biologist Patrick Rose told ABC News. Rose is the executive director of Save the Manatee Club, the non-profit organization started by singer Jimmy Buffet in 1981 that is dedicated to protecting manatees and preserving their natural habitat.
The group tells ABC News that popular waterways for manatees, like the Indian River Lagoon on Florida’s east coast, have suffered years of pollution from sources like failed septic tanks, improperly treated sewage and fertilizer that deposits nutrients into the water.
“That excess nutrient causes algal blooms that were so severe that it shaded out the seagrass that manatees and other species depend on. The seagrass died,” Rose said.
Manatees typically eat 100 to 200 pounds of seagrass and other plants every day, or roughly 10-20% of their body weight. With so little seagrass available, the manatees have been starving, and in 2021 U.S Fish and Wildlife declared the high number of manatee deaths “an unusual mortality event”.
According to the lawsuit, the Florida manatee was first listed as an endangered species in 1967, but to help protect the animals even further, USFWS designated areas where manatees are found as a “critical habitat” in 1976. Critical habitats are specific areas that have biological and physical features that are important for the survival of a species.
When the critical habitat was first established, important components of the habitat, such as the seagrass, were not taken into consideration, Rose said.
But by 2008, updated Congressional and USFWS definitions of a critical habit and new scientific information required that the manatee's critical habitat designation be adjusted, according to the lawsuit.
Environmental groups requested that USFWS update the term in 2008 and the agency agreed, but never followed through, according to the lawsuit.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not respond to an ABC News request for comment on the lawsuit.
Save the Manatee Club hopes the USFWS "will work with us now to ensure that seagrasses and warm water habitat are better protected to prevent a continuation of the devastating losses of so many manatees due the continuing loss of seagrasses, which are literally “critically important” to the future survival of manatees,” Rose said.
Save the Manatee is also appealing to the United States Environmental Protection Agency in hopes to upgrade water quality standards so that seagrass will not continue to die from pollution.
“Ultimately, we believe that we must use the provisions of both the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act to ensure that manatees are protected today and for the foreseeable future," Rose said.
If the court rules in favor of the environmental groups, it will result in higher standards and stiffer penalties for those who pollute waters which kill seagrass. According to Rose, until the standards are raised, the manatees and their ecosystems will continue to be under threat.