TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – A U.S. congressman from the Tampa Bay area has called on the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to upgrade the manatee from its current “threatened” status to “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. 

Preliminary rates from Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission indicate that a total of 782 manatees have died so far in 2021, compared to a total of 637 deaths in all of 2020. The five-year average of manatee deaths is 306, according to FWC.  

One are hit particularly hard is Indian River Lagoon, a 150-mile stretch of inland river system that runs partially through Brevard County. According to our sister station, WESH, Brevard County had seen 320 manatee deaths alone as of June 9.

“Manatees are beloved, iconic mammals in Florida,” Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., said. “We should provide these gentle giants with the highest levels of federal protection.” 

The species was reclassified from endangered to threated in May 2017 – a move Buchanan opposed. 

“In 2016, Buchanan formally objected to the FWS downgrading the manatee’s ESA designation from endangered to threatened, noting that the FWS may have been using outdated data to support the reduction in protection,” a press release from his office said.

8 On Your Side’s Daisy Ruth spoke with Patrick Rose, aquatic biologist and executive director of Save The Manatee Club, in March when the Unusual Mortality Event (UME) of manatees was first reported.  

Rose said the height of the problem stems from a lack of food for the mammals. 

“For decades, there have been too many nutrients going into the northern Indian River Lagoon in particular. It finally kicked over to the point where seagrass started dying in large numbers, up to 50-some-thousand some acres,” he said. “It’s a sequence of events where too much nutrients led to harmful algae blooms, which shaded the seagrasses, caused the seagrasses to die, that reduced the forage available for manatees over many different years of decline.” 

Save The Manatee Club and the FWC also note that it is illegal to give manatees food, even lettuce. There are different ways for the public to help save these gentle giants here in Florida. 

To report a distressed or dead manatee, Floridians and visitors can go online to the FWC website or call 888-404-FWCC. Cell phone users can also call #FWC or *FWC.