We love manatees in Florida.
We put them on license plates. We name our school mascots after them. We brag about the beloved sea cows to out-of-state friends.
But Florida’s decision-makers aren’t showing the love, putting economic interest over the preservation of manatee habitats. They have allowed urban development to spread without enough safeguards, defunded environmental agencies and imposed water-quality standards that are friendly to polluters. And even when those standards are stringent enough, Florida has failed to enforce them.
“Now the bills are coming due,” Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, told the Herald’s Editorial Board.
We’re paying a high price.
Manatee deaths in 2021 have reached such an alarming number in Florida that the federal government declared it an “unusual mortality event.” In the first four months of the year, manatee deaths reached 723, surpassing the 637 deaths reported in all of 2020 and the 607 reported in 2019, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The cause of death in most cases is unknown because necropsies were done on only one-quarter of them, Rose said. But the available data shows that many died from a combination of cold winter temperatures and starvation.
Freshwater springs historically were a warm-water refuge for manatees during the winter, but most have either been blocked by dams, altered by construction or are subject to declining water levels because of groundwater pumping for human or agricultural use. That has caused manatees to migrate to power plants along Florida’s east coast for warm water during cold months.
There is not enough seagrass to feed them in those spots, thanks to the toxic algae blooms that have plagued our rivers, bays and lakes. Nutrients found in fertilizer, septic tanks, sewage spills and urban runoff are feeding those blooms..
Florida’s environmental disasters have been decades in the making, and it took several governors and legislatures to get us to where we are. But never there was as much disregard for natural resources as during former Gov. Rick Scott’s tenure from 2011 to 2019, Rose said.
“Those eight years were terrible years for Florida,” he told the Board.
Scott made it easier for businesses to obtain environmental permits at the expense of water quality; he pushed out experienced scientists from the Department of Environmental Protection and, to add insult to injury, forbade them from using the term “climate change” in official communications.
He dismantled the Department of Community Affairs, which oversaw urban development — he also got help from the Legislature’s chipping away at growth-management laws. Scott also imposed drastic budget cuts on water-management districts, which oversee many restoration projects. Many of these cuts were necessary during the Great Recession, but the state didn’t recover from them even as the economy rebounded.
Scott, now a U.S. senator, isn’t the only culprit. Lawmakers have done their share by siding with powerful industries such as agriculture, which has fought stricter water quality standards and enforcement.
DeSantis raises hopes
Environmentalists are more optimistic about Gov. DeSantis. He appointed a chief science officer and created an algae-bloom task force, but it can only make recommendations. The DEP, which answers to the governor, has resisted calls to create water-quality criteria for the bacteria that’s in algal blooms. That’s an irresponsible failure that DEP should correct.
Let’s not forget the role of cities, counties and utilities.
Broward County has the second-largest number of manatee deaths — 56 — which is three times more than last year. Broward is home to a Florida Power & Light power plant and has seen several sewage spills in recent years. Boating also played a role in manatee deaths there.
More than half of all manatee deaths in 2021 occurred in the Indian River Lagoon, the 156-mile estuary that stretches along the Treasure and Space coasts. The lagoon’s northern portion, which accounts for nearly 300 deaths, has lost 60 percent to 90 percent of sea grass thanks to urban pollution and leaky septic tanks, Rose said. The lagoon’s southern tip in Stuart gets hit every year by Lake Okeechobee discharges, which carry agricultural pollution that’s behind putrid, guacamole-thick algal blooms.
Similar issues are plaguing Biscayne Bay, which had a fishkill last year, but Miami-Dade hasn’t been a spot where manatees normally congregate in the winter. There have been fewer deaths in the county, 18.
Rose said manatee deaths could reach 1,000 by the end of the year. The alarming loss of Florida’s most beloved mammal should serve as a warning that the state can do better by its natural resources.