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Florida’s Manatees are dying at a staggering rate. What can be done? | Editorial
The “sea cows” are dying because of human activity.
Annie (bottom) was rescued as an orphaned calf and was released in 2008. She is not shy and is quite popular with  visitors at Blue Spring State Park.
Annie (bottom) was rescued as an orphaned calf and was released in 2008. She is not shy and is quite popular with visitors at Blue Spring State Park. [ Courtesy of Save the Manatee Club ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Jul. 7

Manatee deaths are soaring throughout Florida’s waterways, and the year is only half over. Loss of seagrass due to worsening pollution appears to be the primary culprit driving the state’s most famous mammal to the brink. Manatees are dying because of human activity, and human habits have to change in order to save them.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, more than 800 manatees have died so far in 2021. To understand how devastating that toll is, consider that 321 manatees deaths were recorded for all of 2020. The highest number of recorded deaths was 830 in 2013, meaning we’re on track for perhaps the most disastrous year ever for manatees, and the busy summer boating season has barely begun.

Boat collisions that injure and kill manatees are a perennial problem in Florida. It’s essential that boaters abide by speed laws and take extra care when boating in manatee zones. Of far greater concern than boat accidents, however, is the loss of seagrass beds where manatees forage. Seagrass in the Indian River Lagoon, which once spanned 80,000 acres, has been decimated by algal blooms caused by overconcentration of nutrients dumped into the water from encroaching development. Despite science-fiction-level green slime from the algae befouling east coast communities and driving tourists away, the reckless discharges continue.

It’s a simple formula, really: Saving manatees is a matter of saving — and restoring — seagrass. Without sufficient areas to forage and enough healthy grass to eat, manatees are starving to death. Further, scientists consider manatees a “sentinel species,” meaning their health serves as an indicator of the welfare of other plants and animals. Indian River Lagoon cleanup must take priority, buoyed by state and local policies that halt and prohibit the kind of runoff that has led to the lagoon’s current unhealthy state. Other ecosystems like Tampa Bay need protecting too, before they become the next site of slimy green blooms.

Decades of agricultural runoff tainting Florida’s water supply, annual red tides and environmental disasters like the Piney Point fertilizer plant runoff into Tampa Bay also make the manatee’s survival harder. Yet as the odds stacked up against the gentle sea cow, one of its most important protections was weakened. In 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service downgraded the West Indian manatee’s protection status from “endangered” to “threatened.” It was the wrong move then — a record number of manatees had been killed by boaters the year before and the downgrade has made people less vigilant. Reversing that decision is urgent now.

The Biden administration restored funding for wildlife conservation in its budget and has abandoned some Trump-era policies that would put vulnerable species in peril and weakened the Endangered Species Act. Those are positive indications, but the manatee needs specific attention to restore its protections.

The gentle manatee, a source of fascination, affection and pride throughout Florida’s history, is desperate for help. Protecting this species should be a value shared by all Floridians, and it should translate to political action. And while reviving manatee populations is a worthwhile effort in itself, the benefits would be manyfold. Restoring habitats so manatees can once again thrive would result in cleaner waterways, smarter development, flourishing wildlife and picturesque (and slime-free) coastlines, making Florida a better place overall.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.