Florida’s manatees are in crisis, and that’s why we’re headed to court to enforce the law to protect them.
The groups going to court — the Save the Manatee Club, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity — have spent years collecting crucial scientific data and repeatedly warning that manatees are in trouble. The nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice is representing the groups, and we’re suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency because what’s killing the manatees is water pollution. And it’s preventable.
None of us wanted to end up in court, but we simply have no time to waste in getting protections in place. Why sue the Environmental Protection Agency? Because that’s the agency that enforces our federal Clean Water Act.
Hundreds of manatees starved to death in the Indian River Lagoon last winter. We all know that the emergency program to feed manatees lettuce is not a long-term solution. We need our leaders to adopt and enforce stronger measures to clean up the water.
Preventable water pollution has wiped out the seagrass that manatees eat, as dense mats of algae shade out the seagrasses on the lagoon’s bottom. Other creatures are struggling, too. Sea turtles that cruise the lagoon’s waters are turning up with nasty tumors.
We have laws that are supposed to prevent ecological disasters like this from happening. These algae outbreaks are fueled by phosphorus and nitrogen in feces and fertilizer that gets into the public’s waters from sources like septic tanks, sewage spills and agricultural practices that are poorly regulated.
Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA must approve a state’s water quality standards. When pollution has the potential to impact marine mammals like manatees and sea turtles, the EPA must consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service to make sure the water quality standards will protect species from harm. In 2013, the EPA signed off on Florida’s water quality standards for phosphorus and nitrogen in the manatees’ habitat, concluding that manatees wouldn’t be adversely impacted.
We can now see that these heartbreaking manatee deaths are glaring proof that Florida hasn’t done its job to protect water quality.
More than half of 1,000-plus manatees that died in 2021 starved to death. Florida’s 2021 manatee deaths were more than double the average annual death rate over the previous five years. The number of deaths represents 19 percent of the Atlantic population of Florida manatees and 12.5 percent of all manatees in Florida.
It is obvious that circumstances in the Indian River Lagoon have changed dramatically for the worse. It’s time for the EPA to do its job — to come back to the table with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service and revisit its 2013 approval of Florida’s water quality standards, so that our manatees have a clean home and seagrass meadows to graze in.
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Elizabeth Forsyth is a senior attorney with Earthjustice’s Biodiversity Defense Program. This piece was written for the Invading Sea collaborative of Florida editorial boards, including the Tampa Bay Times, focused on the threats posed by the warming climate.