Mass death of manatees inspires emergency actions in Florida

I ran up to the water’s edge, an oversized camera swinging from my neck. I peered over the railing to see... nothing. Not a manatee is sight. The waters adjacent to Manatee Park, Fort Myers were deserted with only a kayak tour group disturbing their placid surface.

This was the situation when I visited the park on the morning of January 4, 2022. During a brief conversation, a park attendant explained the absence of the animals. The weather was warm and the manatees only gathered in the park’s waters when they needed the artificial warmth generated by a nearby power plant. 

The warm conditions of that morning meant the only manatees I saw on that trip were plastic statues. It was disappointing for me as a wildlife photographer on a family vacation to Florida –– but I do not begrudge the animals for not making an appearance. They were better off foraging for food while the weather was warm than huddling together in the aquatic equivalent of a climate refugee camp. These animals have suffered through a lot in the last few years and need every day of warm water they can get. 

Florida’s Starving Manatees

The manatee population living along Florida’s East coast has been suffering from an “unusual mortality event” or UME since December 2020. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) reported that 1101 manatees died across Florida in 2021. For comparison, the FWC reported just 637 manatee fatalities in 2020. The number of manatee fatalities in 2021 jumped 476 deaths over the 5-year average of 625 fatalities a year. According to Florida Director of the Center for Biological Diversity Jaclyn Lopez, the manatee deaths witnessed in Florida between the beginning of the UME and February 2022 are equivalent to 12-13% of the state’s total manatee population. 

According to Lopez and the FWC, the cause of the recent manatee death crisis is the collapse of the seagrass population in warm water areas that manatees in Eastern Florida use to survive the winter. High levels of nitrogen and phosphorus caused by human water pollution (such as agricultural and suburban waste water runoff) allow naturally occurring algae to grow into harmful algae blooms. These algae blooms block sunlight from passing through the water to the seagrass beds below, devastating the manatee’s main food source. The manatees are then forced to choose between congregating in warm water areas that no longer have enough seagrass to support them or venturing out into areas where the winter water is too cold for them to survive. 

Both Lopez and the FWC point to Indian River Lagoon as the epicenter of this crisis. According to Lopez, the lagoon is kept at a toasty 68 degrees because of artificial warming created by discharge from a nearby nuclear power plant. It has traditionally been an indispensable wintering area for manatees, but now it no longer has enough seagrass to support the animals who gather there, causing mass starvation and numerous fatalities. 

Emergency Lettuce for Manatees

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the FWC have responded to the UME with the formation of a Joint Incident Management Team with a Joint Unified Command (UC) to coordinate the government’s response. Under the framework of this taskforce, federal and state conservation officials have worked together to monitor the situation, keep the public informed, and minimize manatee casualties. The most drastic effort undertaken by the taskforce was a pilot feeding program in which officials would provide manatees with lettuce. According to the FWC, before the feeding program manatees would “completely fast or consume elements with no or little nutritional value, including sand or other debris.” The supplemental feeding trial was implemented in order to “reduce the negative health impacts of prolonged starvation and possibly reduce the numbers of deaths and manatees needing rescue.”

The manatees began to eat the lettuce wildlife officials placed into the water on January 20, 2022. The FWC does not currently have an estimate on the total number of manatees fed by the program. The number of animals visiting the Temporary Field Response Station (TFRS) in Indian River Lagoon, where the feeding was being carried out, varied, with a single-day high of 800 individuals. The feeding program was discontinued on March 31, since most of the manatees dispersed to better feeding grounds as the waters warmed. A scaled down UC is continuing to monitor the area for distressed manatees over the summer.

When asked about the feeding program, Lopez called it a “necessary stopgap” and “an essential emergency measure” but argued it was not a viable long term solution. Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save The Manatee Club, agreed with Lopez, saying the program “cannot possibly be relied on for the long term future.” He also called the program “tragically necessary” and said that the need for it was “predictable” given the government’s failure to adequately deal with water quality issues. 

The Lawsuits

Three conservation groups, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Save The Manatee Club, have responded to the UME with lawsuits against the USFWS and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

According to Lopez and Rose, the conservation groups hope the lawsuit against the USFWS will force the agency to update the “critical habitat designation” of Florida manatees. Critical habitat is defined as the air, land, food, and water essential for the survival of a species. Rose explained that the current critical habitat designation for Florida manatees was included in the original 1973 Endangered Species Act and that it has not been expanded to keep pace with new science and regulations in the years since that law’s passage. The Endangered Species Act requires federal agencies take into account how their policies impact the critical habitat of endangered and threatened species when crafting policy.

According to Lopez and Rose, the USFWS actually agreed with environmental groups that the critical habitat designation for Florida manatees needed to be updated back in 2008. However, the agency has so far not dedicated the needed resources to update the designation. The agency currently has until June 24 to answer the complaint of the conservation groups in court. Lopez put the purpose of the lawsuit succinctly, saying, “If we protect manatee habitat, they won’t starve to death.”

According to the Save The Manatee Club, the lawsuit against the EPA over its failure to consult with the USFWS on water quality standards and its inadequate enforcement of those standards was filed on May 10. 

When asked about the lawsuits, a representative of the USFWS said: “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is aware of the litigation, but we do not comment on litigation as a matter of policy.” The agency also said that: “The existing Florida manatee critical habitat designation includes the Indian River Lagoon at the epicenter of the ongoing UME.”

The Uncertain Future of a Florida Icon

In the long term, efforts will need to be made to restore water quality and manatee habitats so that these herbivorous marine mammals can thrive without human feeding programs. Hopefully these changes are made so that tourists and Florida residents alike will be able to enjoy the spectacle of seeing these wonderful creatures in the wild for generations to come.

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