What a bad year to be a Florida manatee. For the first time on record, more than 1,000 of the sea mammals have died in a calendar year — and it’s not even December yet. That could amount to one in every seven of the state’s manatees gone in less than 11 months. Many of them starved, thanks to a die-off of seagrass, a problem worsened by human-made pollution. In the short run, Florida owes it to this iconic mammal to find ways to mitigate the damage. It’s also time to put the manatees back on the endangered species list, which would help their long-term prospects.
In recent years, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has estimated the state’s total manatee population at a minimum of 7,250. Through Nov. 12, the commission has recorded 1,003 deaths, smashing the previous record of 830 set in 2013. As the Times’ Rose Wong reported, the year got off to a bad start when manatees returned to one of their typical wintering spots near a power plant in the Indian River Lagoon off Brevard County. Manatees often seek the warmer waters near power plants during cold winter months. But algal blooms in recent years killed tens of thousands of acres of seagrass, a primary food source for the voracious eaters. A 1,000-pound manatee can eat 100 pounds of food in a day, according to the University of Florida. Without enough seagrass, many of the manatees starved.
Human pollution from leaky septic tanks, agricultural runoff, lawn fertilizers, sewage overflows and other sources fuel algal blooms like the one that decimated the Indian River Lagoon. Boat collisions accounted for nearly 100 of the deaths, and Red Tide was a possible factor in 44 deaths, including 24 in the Tampa Bay area, the Conservation Commission reported. While naturally occurring, Red Tide can be exacerbated by pollution. For instance, wastewater pumped from the site of an old fertilizer plant at Piney Point may have amplified this summer’s massive Red Tide outbreak in Tampa Bay. In other words, there’s a direct line between human activity and many of the manatee deaths. That’s why we need to step up and make this right.
One move would be to support U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan’s bill to return the manatees to endangered status. In 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reclassified manatees from endangered to threatened, noting growing populations and improving habitat. But massive algal blooms in recent years have taken a toll on the manatees and their feeding grounds. Buchanan, a Sarasota Republican and longtime champion of protecting the manatees, said the endangered status designation would help draw more funding and attention.
Another positive development: The Hillsborough County Commission voted this week in favor of an annual fertilizer ban from June 1 to Sept. 30, when runoff from heavy rain storms wash unneeded nutrients from the fertilizers into our waterways. The ban, which includes fines of up to $500, prohibits the application of fertilizers that contain nitrogen and phosphorus. (Pinellas County already bans retailers from selling similar fertilizers during the summer months.) The Hillsborough ban wasn’t specifically a reaction to the recent manatee deaths, but it should help cut down on fish kills and algal blooms, and generally keep the waterways cleaner, which should benefit Tampa Bay’s manatees.
No one likes seeing manatees starving en masse or their battered carcasses floating ashore. The good news is that many of the deaths are preventable. We only need to change our behavior — pollute less, promote clean waterways, pay attention when boating. Our negligence and indifference are killing the manatees. It’s time for that to change.
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.