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Save the seagrass, lagoons and manatees


Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board

Published 5:02 a.m. ET May 19, 2022

In recent months those fighting to save Florida’s beloved manatees have done things they never thought they’d do — and this month’s decision to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is just the latest example.

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. 

Advocates for manatees have 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. 

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.

State and federal officials know what is causing this slaughter. They saw 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 manatee deaths are a small part of the ecological nightmare 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 where more than 2,000 species are born, from tiny crabs to juvenile sea turtles.

Seagrasses shelter spawning fish, keep lagoon waters healthy and provide manatees with nearly all of their food. But seagrass beds have been dying as part of a noxious chain reaction triggered by human carelessness, from seepage from faulty septic tanks, to runoff from coastal roads and chemicals from overfertilized lawns. Massive blooms of stinking, toxic algae turn once-clear waters into something resembling guacamole.

Humans have a lot at stake, too. The lagoon provides stock for Florida fisheries and sports anglers as well as for recreational boating and ecotourism, valued at more than $7 billion annually.

The lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Orlando demands swift action to reduce contaminants. A coalition of environmental groups — Save the Manatee, Earthjustice, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity — want the EPA to force Florida to upgrade 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 deemed 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.

State and federal environmental agencies have repeatedly failed to do their jobs, and the evidence is manifesting ― in a dying lagoon and landfills full of dead manatees.

Federal officials should partner with the state and remove old septic tanks, stop the flow of runoff, restrict the amount of lawn fertilizers that can be used and look 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 i. 

This piece first appeared in the Orlando Sentinel, part of the Invading Sea collaborative of Florida editorial boards focused on climate change.