Mass starvation of manatees impels federal lawsuit over FL water pollution

Save the Manatee Club and others demand EPA intervene

By: - May 10, 2022 5:16 pm

Manatees gather in waters within the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse Outstanding Natural Area, managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Credit: BLM Southeastern States

The mass starvation of manatees in Florida last year was caused by preventable water pollution, and state government should be forced to clean up the state’s waterways, says a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday on behalf of three major environmental groups.

More than 1,100 manatees died last year – an unprecedented number — mainly of starvation, state and federal authorities reported. More than half of the deaths occurred in the Indian River Lagoon, where ongoing pollution has spawned massive toxic algae blooms that kill seagrasses, the iconic mammals’ primary source of food, and cause widespread fishkills that foul the water and the shoreline.

Earthjustice, an environmental law organization, filed the lawsuit on behalf of nonprofit organizations Save the Manatee Club, Center for Biological Diversity, and Defenders of Wildlife. They demand that federal environmental regulators intervene to make state environmental regulators impose tougher pollution limits.

The lawsuit says the die-off of manatees, along with steep declines in green sea turtles, loggerhead sea turtles and smalltooth sawfish – all threatened or endangered species – in Indian River Lagoon demonstrates the 150-mile-long waterway on Florida’s Atlantic coast is suffering “ecologic collapse.”

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

The chief culprit, according to the environmental groups, is leakage from tens of thousands of faulty septic tanks permitted by the state under a 2013 standard that is clearly not working. Climate change is believed to be exacerbating the problem.

“The root of the problem is deteriorating water quality. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from human activities fuels harmful algal outbreaks that block sunlight from reaching seagrass, the manatee’s main food source. As a result, tens of thousands of acres of seagrass have died, and hundreds of manatees have starved to death,” the lawsuit says. It adds that the pollution is causing deadly tumors in sea turtles and habitat loss for smalltooth sawfish.

“Hundreds of manatees are dying in the Indian River Lagoon as the water quality plummets, and the EPA must confront the massive nutrient pollution behind this disaster,” said Ragan Whitlock, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a prepared joint statement.

“Manatees need clean water to live in – it’s that simple,” said Earthjustice attorney Elizabeth Forsyth, in the joint statement. “The pollution in the Indian River Lagoon is preventable. We’re asking EPA to step in and ensure the protection of the Indian River Lagoon and the species that depend on it.”

Florida Sen. Debbie Mayfield, whose district includes much of Indian River Lagoon, did not respond to requests for comment. A Republican, she was chief sponsor of the 2020 “Clean Waterways Act” billed as an historic advancement in water-quality legislations, but which environmental groups decried as mostly toothless.

Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection declined to comment on the litigation and its allegations.

Fish killed by pollution-fueled red tide float in Boca Ciega Bay near Madeira Beach. Credit: Octavio Jones/Getty Images

The Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act are federal laws charged with protecting rare animals such as manatees and sea turtles. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which administers those laws, should force a re-evaluation and heightening of Florida’s water-quality standards for Indian River Lagoon, says the lawsuit.

Earthjustice filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Orlando after twice notifying the EPA, in December and again in February, about the extraordinary die-off of marine animals in the lagoon. Earthjustice demanded EPA restart an interagency process of setting Florida’s water-quality standards in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service – federal agencies that regulate manatees, sea turtles and smalltooth sawfish.

Those notices followed the Fish and Wildlife Service making the same request in August, when it warned the EPA that Indian River Lagoon had reached an “ecological tipping point” that would continue to kill off marine life if the pollution is not staunched.

In November, the EPA turned down the Fish and Wildlife Service request, saying it provided “no evidence that the previously approved and consulted-upon water quality criteria are not protective of manatees or seagrass and their associated critical habitats.”

Earthjustice and its clients said in their letters and in the lawsuit that the evidence is undeniable.

The Phoenix requested and is awaiting comment from the Southeast regional office of the EPA.

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.