Darren-Soto Rep. Darren Soto meets with manatee experts at SeaWorld Orlando.
Image via Twitter/@RepDarrenSoto

“Now with this unusual mortality event it’s pretty clear we need to make them endangered again in order to save the manatees,” Rep. Darren Soto said.

Florida Rep. Darren Soto (D-Kissimmee) isn’t short of work. Whether he’s knee-deep in helping Floridians getting vaccinated or asking the federal government for support amid the COVID surge, the Democratic lawmaker hasn’t forgotten about the manatees, a dying breed. 

In an interview with Floricuas, Soto explained the importance of getting this marine mammal back on the endangered species list and why this is a critical cause for him. 

“The Florida manatee is iconic, known throughout the US and in the world,” he said.

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The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission reported that 841 manatee deaths were recorded between Jan. 1 and July 2, breaking the previous record of 830 that died in 2013 because of an outbreak of toxic red tide. 

This year, however, scientists say, manatees are dying rapidly primarily from starvation due to the loss of seagrass beds. 

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“Now with this unusual mortality event it’s pretty clear we need to make them endangered again in order to save the manatees,” Soto said. 

In 2017, under the Trump administration, the US Fish and Wildlife Service downgraded the West Indian manatee from “endangered” to “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) — a move that some Democrats and Republicans opposed. Today, Soto is trying to reverse that. 

On Aug. 10, Soto and Florida Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Sarasota) introduced the legislation HR 4946, the Manatee Protection Act, to grant manatees the highest level of federal protection available. If passed, this federal law would provide more funding and a more intense focus on saving the manatees. 

“These mass deaths should alarm us all and incite us to take immediate action to protect these precious mammals. By adding the West Indian manatee to the ESA’s endangered list, we are ensuring that necessary steps are taken to prevent any more unnecessary deaths,” Soto said. 

Soto added that his bill would complement another legislation already proposed by Florida Reps. Stephanie Murphy (D-Winter Park) and Brian Mast (R-Palm City). Their bill—the Marine Mammal Research and Response Act—would allow the federal government to support efforts by local governments and nonprofit organizations to rescue and rehabilitate sick and injured marine mammals and to determine what is causing the mammals to experience problems. 

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In the meantime, Soto is speaking to experts to see what can be done to save the manatees now.  “Speaking to manatee experts at Seaworld Orlando there was a discussion about how long it is going to take to restore that seagrass, and it could take a couple years. We have test experts that are creating an interim strategy—and you have to be very careful about humans feeding manatees but it can be potentially done in a way that they can still migrate.”

When asked if he thinks Gov. Ron DeSantis could help this bill get passed, Soto said he is “hopeful” especially because this is a bipartisan bill, but added there is still much work to be done. 

“There is a long-term strategy that needs to happen,” Soto said. “We have a huge increase in population along the rivers in Brevard County where they finally enacted a fertilizer ordinance, and they have even raised their property taxes to help deal with this issue.”

He added, “We are going to long-term address the septic tanks because the nutrients from this entire population in the river, it kills the seagrass, and promotes other invasive species which makes it inhospitable for manatees.”