Florida’s governor and Legislature did nothing to stop manatees from starving

March 17, 2022 7:00 am

FWC biologists conduct necropsy on manatee that starved to death. Credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

When I was a kid, I loved the Sherlock Holmes stories. I read and reread them all. One I still vividly remember was “The Adventure of the Silver Blaze,” which involves a missing racehorse and the death of its trainer. It contains one of the most famous bits of detective dialogue ever written.

After Holmes studies the scene of the crime, he says to the Scotland Yard inspector in charge of the case that he should pay close attention to “the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime.”

“The dog did nothing in the nighttime,” says the baffled inspector.

“That was the curious incident,” replies Holmes, having figured out that this was an inside job.

I got a definite “dog in the nighttime” vibe from this year’s Florida Legislature, which just concluded its regular session on Monday.

You probably heard a lot about what our fine legislators did during what’s been dubbed the “culture wars” session. They banned all abortions after 15 weeks, even in cases of rape or incest. They told schools and businesses to avoid talking about racist incidents in the past that might make white people uncomfortable in the present. They made it easier to ban school library books. They squelched any discussions of sex or gender in kindergarten or elementary school.

In other words, it was a great session if your job title is “Ayatollah.”

That last item, dubbed the “Don’t’ Say Gay” bill, led to Gov. Ron DeSantis condemning what he called “Woke Disney” – which, contrary to what it sounds like, did not involve the cryogenic lab unfreezing Uncle Walt. I have to admit it was amusing to watch our Whiner-in-Chief ranting about how this evil corporation was asking him to veto the bill while not saying one word about returning any of its campaign contributions.

Speaking of giving, the Legislature gave the governor pretty much everything he asked for, apparently because they think he’s going to be president someday (that’s what he thinks, at least).

The gift list included a new election fraud police squad (I picture its leader being a clone of bumbling Lt. Frank Drebin), full control over agency appointments that used to require Cabinet approval and a private “guard” he can call up whenever he decides circumstances warrant. For instance, he might want to round up all those rebellious surgeons who contend doctors should wear a mask in surgery. He’ll probably condemn it as “surgical theater.”

But what I found curious, like the non-barking dog in the Holmes story, is what the governor and Legislature didn’t do.

There was a long list in the Tampa Bay Times the other day: “Lawmakers will leave Tallahassee taking no meaningful action on rising property and automobile insurance rates, affordable housing, relief from sky-high rents, post-Surfside condominium reform or a forthcoming Medicaid cliff that could see hundreds of thousands of Floridians lose their health insurance.”

Looking at that list, you can tell our “leaders” don’t have a clue about what it’s like for the average Floridian to scratch together enough money to pay their medical bills, struggle to keep a roof over their heads and wonder if the place will someday fall on them.

Believe it or not, that roll call of flabbergasting failures left something out, something that I thought was pretty important: They failed to fix the state’s biggest and most embarrassing environmental problem.

I am talking about the pollution woes that have led to a record number of manatees dying.

Manatees are iconic animals, popular with both tourists and residents. They’re our official state marine mammal. They adorn everything from license plates to school names. Heck, they were even the namesake of a minor league ball club!

And last year, more than 1,000 of them died in a pretty horrible way: starving to death.

The seagrass they eat has been wiped out by repeated toxic algae blooms that were fed by years and years of human pollution. Because of the lost seagrass, many of the ones that survived are suffering from malnutrition. Expect reproduction to be down, say scientists, because malnourished animals don’t have the energy to breed.

Manatee feeding on lettuce at Brevard County site. Credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Meanwhile, even more manatees are dying this year – about 400 so far in the first three months of the year. We may see last year’s record broken in less than 12 months. Things are so bad, state and federal biologists have been testing whether tossing 3,000 pounds of lettuce to the manatees every day will save their lives.

And yet we heard not a word about fixing this problem from DeSantis, from Senate President Wilton “Slave to Big Sugar” Simpson or from House Speaker Chris  “I Go Along With the Other Two” Sprowls. The governor likes to tout his “anti-wokeness,” but in this case, it’s been as if he’s fast asleep.

All those lawmakers that were barking like a kennel full of frantic Chihuahuas about the “culture war” issues didn’t have anything to say about trying to clean up the pollution causing so many dead manatees.

You don’t have to be named “Sherlock” to deduce that their silence is a sign that something is seriously messed up in this state.

Making it worse

I talked to Jerry Phillips of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility about this. He said the state could be passing laws to make pollution rules stronger, require more inspections and monitoring, even shorten the timeline and increase the penalties for violators.

“We need stronger protections for our waterways,” he told me. But we’re not getting them “in spite of all the talk from the governor about him wanting to be viewed as an environmental governor.”

Don’t get me wrong – our governor and legislature did throw a lot of money at the manatee die-off.

As part of the whopping $112 billion-with-a-b budget they approved Monday – the largest in the state’s history, drawn up by self-described “small-government conservatives” – they set aside a few million to help the manatees.

They earmarked $20 million “to enhance and expand the network of acute care facilities to treat injured and distressed manatees, restore manatee access to springs, provide habitat restoration in manatee concentrated areas, provide manatee rescue and recovery efforts and implement pilot projects including supplemental feeding trials.”

But all that money won’t fix the pollution problem, will it?

“I’m appreciative of state appropriations for the short-term manatee problems,” Pat Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, told me this week. “But they won’t do anything for the long-term problems that created the manatee problem. We’ve got to have better water quality.”

Spending money on the symptoms while ignoring the cause is as dopey as spending millions on responding to sea level rise by building big seawalls, installing massive pumps and raising up the highways, yet not budgeting a single dime to combat the reason the sea level is rising.

Oh wait, come to think of it, that is another thing the Legislature did (or rather, didn’t do) this year. In fact, they made things worse with a bill that hurts the state’s solar industry. Keep burning those fossil fuels, kids, and make sure the sandbags are handy!

According to Rose, they did something similar with the water pollution problem, making it worse instead of better. Here’s how that works:

The seagrass died out because of pollution from fertilizer-laden stormwater runoff, septic tank waste and broken sewage plants. The excessive nutrient pollution fueled the growth of toxic algae blooms galore – red tide, blue-green algae, green algae, brown algae, you name the color and I bet we got it. Sometimes it feels like Florida’s waterways are fast becoming the Roy G. Biv of algae blooms.

Those algae blooms in the Indian River Lagoon – once considered the most biodiverse estuary in North America — shaded out all the seagrass growing below it.

Picture what happens when the algae bloom is so large and so persistent that for months on end it blocks the sun from reaching tens of thousands of acres of seagrass. Now guess what you get when that happens over and over for years.

If you guessed “the seagrass dies out and doesn’t come back,” then give yourself a point. You are smarter than the average Florida politician (but that’s a low bar).

The algae blooms hurt humans, too. Their toxins float through the air and choke. The effect is particularly strong among those who already suffer from breathing-related problems like asthma. Meanwhile the fish that the toxins kill wash ashore, chasing tourists away. That means the algae blooms are an economic issue, too.

Cleaning up the water means trying to stem the flow of fertilizer and other pollutants now pouring into our waterways. That seems obvious, doesn’t it?

Yet the House and Senate passed a bill that lets citrus-growers get a note from a “certified professional” to dump lots of excess fertilizer in their groves – and the law says the state will then assume that they’re in compliance with the state’s already lax regulations.

DeSantis hasn’t signed it into law yet. But I think that’s a safer bet than buying your weekly lottery ticket.

Mr. Fix-It breaks a promise

Remember, way back in the pre-pandemic times of 2018, when DeSantis was just an obscure congressman running for a job in state government?

During that campaign, he promised to end the whole algae bloom problem.  Echoing his bombastic mentor, Donald Trump, he presented himself as the “I Alone Can Fix It” candidate for algae. He said if elected, he’d appoint a committee of smart people to suggest solutions.

He did get elected, and he did appoint a committee of actual scientists. Not one of them was a pretend expert like the Donald Duck-like medical researcher that he’s put in charge of the state’s COVID-19 response.

Those experts studied the algae blooms and suggested some hard but effective solutions. If implemented, they would have gone a long way toward improving water quality in this state. Did DeSantis and the Legislature take those suggestions to heart? They did not.

Instead, in 2020, our legislators passed a bill called “The Clean Waterways Act,” a name that suggests that the day it was introduced must have been Opposite Day. This bill, for instance, said that farmers not only didn’t have to reduce the pollution running off their land — they didn’t even have to monitor it.

The governor’s office described the bill as being “based on” the task force recommendations. That’s sort of like when Hollywood claims a movie is “based on a true story” and everything in the script is made up except for “the,” “and” and “a.”

This bill was so weak on fighting pollution that environmental groups urged DeSantis to veto it and force everyone to start over.  Instead, Mr. Fix-It declined to fix the bill. He signed this sham into law, declaring everything would be fine.

FWC biologist tosses lettuce into enclosure to feed starving manatees. Credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

The dead manatees show he was wrong. In its latest report card on the Indian River Lagoon, the non-profit Marine Resources Council rated the current water quality in the 156-mile long estuary as “F double minuses.”

That bungled bill became law two years ago. There was time for the governor and lawmakers to fix it in 2021 — except they didn’t. And they didn’t bring the matter up this year, either.

That means the carcass of every dead manatee belongs on the doorstep of DeSantis, Simpson and Sprowls, whom I have come to think of as a real-life version of Roald Dahl’s fictional Boggis, Bunce and Bean.

As Holmes deduced about Silver Blaze, these manatee murders are an inside job. This trio and the majority of the Legislature kept silent because they would rather kowtow to polluters such as the free-spending sugar industry than do the hard work of cleaning up pollution.

We can’t do much to Sprowls other than publicly mock him for being so out of touch with the voters he supposedly serves. But DeSantis and Simpson are both candidates in this fall’s elections. DeSantis is seeking reelection as governor and Simpson wants to be the next agriculture commissioner.

Both should be forced to explain themselves at every forum and campaign appearance. Every time they open their mouths, someone should say, “Wait, why did you keep quiet about what was killing the manatees?” DeSantis, in particular, should have to explain why he broke his promise to fix the algae bloom cycle.

Frankly, this debacle should doom his political career. Because a watchdog that won’t bark about what’s important deserves to go straight to the doghouse, not the White House.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.