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Fish and Wildlife sued for not finalizing federal protections for Panama City crayfish

Tony Mixon
Washington County News

ST. PETERSBURG — A nonprofit environmental protection group sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Thursday for not finalizing protections for the endangered Panama City crayfish.

The Center for Biological Diversity filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. The crayfish is unique to Bay County, but once there were populations in other flatwoods and wet-prairie marshes in Jefferson, Leon and Wakulla counties.

An example of the Panama City crayfish, an endangered species that exists only in Bay County.

Attempts to reach FWS officials for comment about the lawsuit were unsuccessful on Thursday.

More:Panama City crayfish habitat to be restored

The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned FWS in 2010 to list the crayfish under the Endangered Species Act. After a 2013 lawsuit, the FWS proposed protection in 2018, but the Center for Biological Diversity says more than a year has passed since the FWS’s legally required deadline to finalize that proposal.

The Center for Biological Diversity says 47 species of plants and animals have gone extinct waiting for protection. While small and seemingly insignificant, the crayfish does serve a purpose.

"They're also an indicator of the health of the environment," said Jaclyn Lopez, director of the Center for Biological Diversity. "Even something like the mussel, a chuck of a shell, can tell you there is something wrong with the environment if that mussel has evolved over the last thousands of years to be in that particular river."

More:Lawsuit to protect Panama City crayfish planned

Lopez said scientists know a lot about the Florida manatee, but not much about the Panama City crayfish and its role in the environment. The main reason for the suit is to put protections in place for the crayfish so that it can be studied more in the coming years, she said.

“Without protection under the Endangered Species Act, the Panama City crayfish will go extinct,” Lopez said. “Saving this crayfish means protecting the wetlands it calls home. Without that, they could blink out of existence.”

Stressors to the species include collection for bait, off-road vehicle use, insecticide application and habitat degradation from pollution.

More:Panama City crayfish to be listed as threatened

With massive urban development, the crayfish has lost most of its habitat and now only is found in isolated areas of Bay County. Just 13 populations remain, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

Meanwhile, the county plans to restore 17 acres of the crayfish’s habitat as part of the Jenks Avenue widening project. The restoration site is near 26th Street and Jenks Avenue, and the project will include removing debris from Hurricane Michael.

The Jenks Avenue project between Baldwin Road and State 390 includes habitat reconstruction because stormwater facilities have to be constructed along the roadway. Invasive species such as popcorn and titi trees will be removed as part of the habitat reconstruction.

Also, the new public park along the shore of North Bay and McKitchen’s Bayou was set up to protect the Panama City crayfish.