Federal EPA: Florida must do more to curb pollution killing manatees

Environmental groups sue to force Florida to raise water-quality standards

By: - May 11, 2022 2:15 pm

Manatees gather during winter in warmer waters, but they are finding too little seagrass on which to feed, causing mass starvation. Credit: Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission

Mass starvation of manatees in Florida’s polluted Indian River Lagoon demonstrates “the need for accelerated action by the state of Florida” to staunch pollutants fouling their habitat, says the Southeast Region of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In a statement issued late Tuesday, EPA’s Southeast region administrator, Daniel Blackman, wrote that the pollution flowing into Indian River Lagoon threatens the creatures’ long-term survival.

“The EPA is very concerned that degraded water quality in the Indian River Lagoon is contributing to sea grass loss and other factors affecting the long-term survival of manatee and other species,” Black said in the 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 statement followed the filing of a lawsuit Tuesday by environmental-law organization Earthjustice on behalf of three major environmental groups demanding that federal authorities intervene to force Florida to set and enforce stricter water-quality standards for the lagoon under the auspices of the Endangered Species Act.

The Unusual Mortality Event cited by EPA is the die-off of more than 1,100 manatees last year, mostly due to starvation brought on by die-off of sea grasses that are the main source of food. Pollution also is sickening and killing endangered sea turtles and smalltooth sawfish,  according to scientific reports cited in court records.

The statement said EPA will meet with Florida authorities and other agencies to “leverage resources and expertise” that “enhance or accelerate actions that will improve water quality” in the 150-mile lagoon on Florida’s Atlantic coast. The statement did not provide details about what those actions may be or how to accomplish them.

Earthjustice filed its lawsuit in federal court on behalf of Save the Manatee Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Defenders of Wildlife.

“We’re glad that EPA recognizes that the state isn’t moving fast enough in this crisis to solve the water pollution catastrophe plaguing manatees in the Indian River Lagoon. But simply asking the state to do more is not enough,” said Earthjustice attorney Elizabeth Forsyth, in a press statement.

“That’s why we’ve filed suit asking EPA to use its powerful authority under the Endangered Species Act to ensure manatees and other threatened and endangered species have the clean water they need to survive.”

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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.