Florida’s manatees are dying in record numbers – but a lawsuit offers hope

US wildlife agency agrees to review protection for habitats after conservationists sue over mass die-offs from poor water quality

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has agreed to update critical habitat protections for manatees after legal pressure from environmental groups, as the animals continue to die in record numbers.

More than 1,000 manatees died in Florida last year, wiping out more than 10% of the state’s population, the deadliest year on record. The unusually high mortality rate for the threatened mammals has continued into 2022, with 562 deaths in the first five months.

Deaths have been particularly high in the Indian River Lagoon on Florida’s east coast. One of the most biologically diverse estuaries in North America, it supports about a third of US manatees. More than 30% of manatee deaths last year occurred here, with many the result of starvation as high levels of water pollution killed off the seagrass on which the animals depend.

Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from leaking septic systems, fertiliser runoff and wastewater treatment is seeping into the lagoon, fuelling algal blooms that prevent seagrass growth.

“We’ve had two years in a row where we’ve lost hundreds and hundreds of manatees due to starvation,” said Patrick Rose, an aquatic biologist and executive director at Save the Manatee Club.

Three manatees eating lettuce
Last winter, Florida wildlife officials launched a plan to hand-feed manatees lettuce in an attempt to reduce deaths from starvation. Photograph: Sunshower Shots/Alamy

The legal settlement with the FWS comes after a long-running campaign, started in 2008, when three nonprofits – the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and the Save the Manatee Club – petitioned the agency to revise protections for the animals, which had remained unchanged since 1976.

After failing to secure a commitment, the organisations filed a lawsuit against the agency in February. Under the resulting settlement, agreed earlier this month, the FWS must publish proposed revisions of critical habitat protections for the manatees by September 2024.

“The manatee has a long road to recovery, but ensuring the safety of its home is a vital step in that direction,” said Ragan Whitlock, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.

The same environmental organisations, with the environmental law nonprofit Earthjustice, are also trying to force the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to act. In May, they launched legal proceedings against the EPA, claiming that the agency has “abandoned manatees to Florida’s inadequate water-quality measures”.

An underwater closeup of a manatee swimming
High levels of water pollution create algal blooms that have killed tens of thousands of hectares of seagrass, on which manatees depend. Photograph: Tobias Frei/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The EPA approved Florida’s current water-quality standards in 2013, stating they were not likely to “adversely affect” manatees. But the lawsuit argues the mass die-off in the Indian River Lagoon shows that these standards are insufficient to rein in pollution, and demands the EPA reassess them. Even if the current standards were met, they would not adequately protect seagrass and manatees, according to a report by Peter Barile, a specialist in marine biology and coastal ecology, filed with the lawsuit.

Earthjustice attorney, Elizabeth Forsyth, said: “The EPA is ultimately the backstop federal agency that is in charge of ensuring that manatees and other species survive in our nation’s water, but also ensuring that our water pollution control regulations are adequate to protect manatees and other species.”

In August 2021, the FWS asked the EPA to restart a consultation on water-quality standards, on the basis that algal blooms had killed tens of thousands of acres of seagrass. The EPA declined, stating there was no evidence to show the standards did not protect manatees and that the issue was one of enforcement.

In May, Daniel Blackman, an EPA administrator, said in a statement: “The unusual mortality event that is claiming the lives of so many manatees highlights the need for accelerated action by the state of Florida to control nutrients reaching the Indian River Lagoon watershed.”

The EPA declined the Guardian’s request for comment, citing active litigation.

Whitlock hopes that the settlement with the FWS will galvanise the EPA to do more to protect manatees. “We hope that this settlement sends a clear message to EPA that it is time to take all action in its power to help,” he said.

In the absence of meaningful action, there are fears that time is running out for manatees. Rose, who has more than 45 years’ experience of working with them, said population growth had been greatly affected. “The number of new calves being born is way down for the east coast of Florida, and we’re going to see consequences for many years to come. We won’t see a strong rebound in the population for some time, and it’s going to take probably a decade or more to recover from this devastating loss.”

Last winter, Florida wildlife officials launched an emergency plan to hand-feed manatees lettuce in an attempt to reduce deaths from starvation. But conservation groups described the move as “too little, too late”.

“It’s sort of like if you’ve got a house on fire and you’re giving people fireproof blankets. It’s not a bad thing, but at the end of the day you’ve got to put out the fire, and that’s what we’re doing with our lawsuit,” Forsyth said.

Manatees were not the only species affected, she added: “It’s also about sea turtles getting tumours, fish losing their mangrove habitat, and supporting commercial and recreational fisheries. Manatees here are the canary in the coalmine, but everybody’s house is on fire.”

Forsyth hopes the legal proceedings will push the EPA to step in when there are similar crises at the state level: “There are water pollution problems all over the country, but I can’t think of another place where iconic threatened species are starving to death en masse because of water pollution.”

Salomé Gómez-Upegui

The GuardianTramp

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