By Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board
Over the past 16 months, the people fighting to save Florida’s gentle, beloved manatees have done things they never thought they’d do — and last week’s decision to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is just the latest example.
Among the unprecedented events, manatee experts, state workers and volunteers have rescued hundreds of emaciated, sick manatees whose main food source — seagrass — has been dying at a terrifying rate. Many will need months of labor-intensive rehabilitation and medical care before they can be released into the wild. Some manatees have been sent as far away as Ohio and Texas.
Advocates for manatees have experimented with feeding them lettuce in parts of Brevard County — going against decades of policy in a desperate attempt to keep more from starving. They’ve begged state and county officials to stop spraying manatee-accessible inland water bodies for water hyacinth and hydrilla, two aggressive, invasive water weeds that can make streams and lakes unnavigable and degrade water quality. They hope the vegetation will provide extra food for manatees that survived the winter but are underweight. Some manatee advocates even suggested trucking hydrilla and water hyacinth into the Indian River Lagoon, a notion that makes most naturalists shudder.
And they’ve pulled hundreds and hundreds of bodies from central and south Florida waterways. Last year was the worst on record for manatee deaths — 1,101 — and as of early May, 541 have died this year. The surge in deaths coincides with a recent state decision to cut down on the number of necropsies it performs, so about two-thirds of those deaths are officially determined to be of unknown causes.
But state and federal officials know what is causing this horrific slaughter, blandly dubbed an “unusual mortality event” by environmental agencies. They’ve seen this coming for more than a decade, yet the only major action was to officially weaken manatees’ protection status in 2017, from endangered to threatened.
More importantly, they know that, while manatee deaths grab headlines, they are a small part of the ecological nightmare that’s blooming along Florida’s southeast coast. The Indian River Lagoon, which stretches 156 miles from Volusia to Palm Beach counties, is one of the most diverse estuaries in the world — a place known as the “cradle of the ocean,” where more than 2,000 species, from tiny crabs to juvenile sea turtles, are born and grow up.
The lagoon is home to nearly as many plant species, but a handful of them have special significance. Seagrasses provide shelter for spawning fish, keep lagoon waters healthy and provide manatees with nearly all of their food. But the seagrass beds have been dying as part of a noxious chain reaction triggered by human carelessness. Seepage from faulty septic tanks, runoff from coastal roads and chemicals from overfertilized lawns have thrown the lagoon out of balance. Past summers have seen massive blooms of stinking, toxic algae that turn once-clear waters into something resembling guacamole. In some places, as much as 90 percent of seagrass beds have disappeared. The filthy water is also directly affecting other endangered species; for example, juvenile sea turtles have been found with tumors often caused by pollution.
Humans have a lot at stake too. The lagoon provides stock for the state’s fisheries and sports anglers as well as recreational boating and ecotourism, Its value to Florida’s economy is upwards of $7 billion annually.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court in Orlando, demands swift action to reduce the contaminants pouring into the lagoon. A coalition of four environmental groups — Save the Manatee, Earthjustice, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity — want the EPA to force Florida to upgrade its water quality standards for lagoon-adjacent counties. The dispute goes back to the EPA’s 2013 approval of state standards that, even at the time, were believed to be too weak. Federal law allows that approval to be revisited, but the EPA has steadfastly — and mysteriously, given the devastation seeping throughout the lagoon — refused.
On the same day the suit was filed, EPA officials said they were ready to work with Florida to enforce its current standards. It’s a laughably weak response: Those standards, as lax as they were, should have been enforced all along.
They weren’t, and now Florida has a crisis festering on its coastline. Federal officials should partner with the state and get to work: Taking out old septic tanks, stopping the flow of runoff, restricting the amount of fertilizers that can be used on lawns and looking for other ways to stop pollution, with clear benchmarks and enforcement agreements. Manatees’ status should also be quickly restored to endangered. These measures can be incorporated into a quick settlement of the Earthjustice lawsuit.
There’s no need to waste time litigating and negotiating. State and federal environmental agencies have repeatedly failed to do their jobs, and the evidence of that is manifesting ― in a dying lagoon, and in landfills full of dead manatees.
This piece first appeared in the Orlando Sentinel, which is part of the Invading Sea collaborative of Florida editorial boards focused on the threats posed by the warming climate.