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Conservation groups to sue EPA over Florida manatee deaths

Pollution-fueled algae blooms have caused over half the 1,000 manatee deaths this year, say the Center for Biological Diversity and others.
Manatees in the central Brevard County stretch of the Indian River will be fed this winter as part of an emergency response.
Manatees in the central Brevard County stretch of the Indian River will be fed this winter as part of an emergency response.
Published Dec. 20, 2021
Updated Dec. 20, 2021

FORT LAUDERDALE — Three conservation groups filed a formal notice on Monday of their intent to sue the Environmental Protection Agency if it doesn’t take steps to protect manatees from water pollution in Florida.

Pollution-fueled algae blooms are cited as the cause of over half of the more than 1,000 manatee deaths in Florida this year, according to a news release from the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and Save the Manatee Club.

The algae blooms killed thousands of acres of seagrass in the Indian River Lagoon, which highlights the inadequacy of Florida’s federally approved water quality standards, the groups said in the notice letter.

Related: Want to help Florida’s manatees? Don’t feed them yourself.

They are asking the EPA to reinitiate consultation with Fish and Wildlife Service to reassess the standards. Monday’s notice gives the agencies 60 days to address violations alleged in the letter before the groups file a lawsuit.

“It’s disgraceful that hundreds of manatees have died as a direct result of regulators’ failure to protect our water quality,” Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a news release.

The Indian River Lagoon is an “ecological wonder that supports not just manatees, but green sea turtles, snook, tarpon and a stunning diversity of marine life,” Lopez noted.

“The mass death of these manatees, which was completely preventable, makes it clear just how critical it is that the EPA take swift action to protect the vibrant ecosystem they live in before it’s too late,” Lopez said.

The Indian River Lagoon includes important warm-water habitat for slow-moving mammals and supports more species of plants and animals than any other estuary in North America, the groups said in the news release.

They claim that despite “extensive evidence of that harmful pollution and Florida’s failure to address it,” the EPA approved the state’s water-quality criteria for nitrogen, phosphorous and dissolved oxygen.

“Until Florida is forced to rein in its rampant pollution, manatees will continue to die slow, agonizing deaths by starvation every winter,” Lindsay Dubin, staff attorney at Defenders of Wildlife, said in the release. “The EPA must act immediately to improve water-quality standards lest it further jeopardize the future of this iconic species.”

Last week, wildlife officials announced a pilot feeding plan that could save many manatees from starvation. However officials said manatees will still face the long-term threat of manmade water pollution stifling their food supply.

Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest electric utility, is putting up $700,000 for a “temporary field response station” to feed the manatees at its plant in Cape Canaveral on the East Coast. The money is also for rescue and rehabilitation of distressed manatees, the company said in a news release.

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The program has not been tried before.

Manatee deaths in Florida this year are more than double the average annual death rate over five years, officials said. The deaths represent 19 percent of the Atlantic population of Florida manatees, and 12 percent of all manatees in Florida.

Manatees were downlisted from “endangered” to “threatened” in 2017, but since then they have suffered significant setbacks from habitat degradation, red tide, unusually cold winters and now potential starvation from the seagrass die-off.