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Pollution Killing Manatees at Record Pace

I’m sad to report that 2013 has become the deadliest year ever for Florida’s endangered manatees.

So far this year, 769 manatees have died (Jan. 1 through Oct. 29), the largest annual manatee die-off in Florida since record-keeping began, according to the Save the Manatee Club.

“That means more than 15 percent of the estimated population of about 5,000 has already been killed, and as the year goes on the total will continue to climb,” environmental reporter Craig Pittman wrote in the Tampa Bay Times.

Boat collisions are usually the main killer of these mellow sea cows, who float and graze in Florida’s sea grass beds. But this year, boat collisions are down.

This year, the biggest manatee die-offs on Florida’s east and west coasts are linked to algae outbreaks, which are worsened by sewage, manure and fertilizer runoff—the subject of our continuing legal fight against polluters. As regular readers of this blog know, we have been working since 2009 to enforce legal limits on these pollutants, which are wrecking Florida’s famed aquatic ecosystems as well as killing wildlife.

Florida regulators are doing the bidding of polluter-lobbyists, and environmental disasters like the record manatee deaths are the sad result. Instead of stepping in to enforce the Clean Water Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has backed off. We are in court trying to change that.

A toxic red tide bloom in southwest Florida killed a record 276 manatees along Florida’s west coast near Fort Myers. On Florida’s east coast, in the amazingly biodiverse Indian River Lagoon east of Orlando, pollution-fueled algae outbreaks kept breaking out and then hundreds of dead fish, dolphins, and pelicans began turning up, along with more than 100 dead manatees.

Among the 123 dead manatees found this year were stillborn, newborn or young calves less than 5 feet in length, which sets another annual record for this category, Dr. Katie Tripp, Save the Manatee Club’s science and conservation director, told reporters.

Forty-nine of the small, dead manatees were found in Brevard County, north of Vero Beach. That’s at the epicenter of a massive sea grass die off which scientists say is linked to pollution.

Indian River Lagoon in Florida. (U.S. FWS)The Indian River Lagoon has lost 47,000 acres of sea grass since 2010. (U.S. FWS)

The Indian River Lagoon has lost 47,000 acres of sea grass since 2010, which, as the Tampa Bay Times noted, “one scientist compared to losing an entire rainforest in one fell swoop.”

When scientists performed necropsies on the manatees, they found that their stomachs contained a reddish seaweed they don’t normally eat—their normal sea grass food source was wiped out.

The last big Florida manatee mortality event happened in 2010, and that year’s culprit was cold temperatures. This year’s record-breaking manatee mortality, Save the Manatee’s Dr. Tripp told reporters, “is a loud and clear signal that our waterways are in trouble.”

Patrick Rose, an aquatic biologist and the executive director of the club, added: “What we put into our waters, how much we pump from our aquifer and draw from our springs and rivers, together with how we use our waterways, all has an impact on our own lives and the lives of every aquatic species. We must be better stewards of our waters and waterways or suffer even more severe consequences going forward.”

Well said.

Last year, the Pacific Legal Foundation filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that seeks to strip protections from manatees by removing them from the list of endangered species and instead list them as merely “threatened.”

We thought the petition was ludicrous when we saw it last year. If we needed proof to show just how ludicrous, sadly, we have it now.

Manatee Mortality
(Data from Tampa Bay Times)

Year
Deaths

2003
380

2004
276

2005
396

2006
417

2007
317

2008
337

2009
429

2010
766

2011
453

2012
392

  2013 *
769

* Through Oct. 30.

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