The state needs to figure out what's killing Florida manatees at an alarming rate. The record kill-off this year, coming as the state's waters get more polluted, should be a wake-up call to state lawmakers and regulators, and a reminder to the voting public that protecting the environment must be serious work and not a political slogan.
With days remaining before the end of 2013, the number of manatee deaths in a single year has topped 800, reaching that mark for the first time since records in Florida started being kept in the 1970s. The number of manatee deaths as of mid December stood at 803, or about 16 percent of the state's estimated population of 5,000 manatees. And 173 of the dead were breeding-age females.
The tally breaks the old record for manatee deaths set in 2010, which resulted from a lengthy cold snap that killed hundreds, pushing that year's death toll to 766. But that cold weather was an anomaly. And it mostly affected younger manatees that had not yet reached breeding age.
A massive bloom of Red Tide along the state's southwest coast caused 276 deaths early this year. Red Tide, a harmful algae bloom growing out of control, has been around for centuries. But this year's was the worst Red Tide die-off ever recorded.
Government and nonprofit scientists are also investigating what killed more than 110 manatees in the Indian River Lagoon. That die-off began in 2012 and hit a high mark in March. The deaths may be linked to pollution-fueled algae blooms that have wiped out some 47,000 acres of sea grass in the waterway — a dietary staple for the manatee. The loss of sea grass may have forced manatees in the lagoon to seek less healthy food sources, such as toxin-laden seaweed.
Officials need to commit the resources necessary to identify the problem in the lagoon in a timely manner. And lawmakers and regulators alike need to look across the board and impose tighter controls on the runoff of sewage and other nutrients. This coastal pollution certainly affects more species than the manatees.
In the meantime, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should not grant a petition being considered that would downgrade the status of manatees from an endangered to a threatened species. With this year's die-off, the mystery over what's happening in the Indian River Lagoon and the declining health of Florida's springs, this is no time to begin scaling back protections for manatees. This is a time for science and caution, and an urgency of effort.