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EPA Must Take Steps to End Mass Manatee Starvation

As deaths surge among Florida's manatees, conservation groups informed the Environmental Protection Agency in December that they will sue if it does not do more to protect the species. Pollution-fueled algae outbreaks have killed the marine mammal’s main food source, seagrass, leading to mass starvation.

Twelve percent of Florida’s manatees died in 2021, and over half of those deaths were due to lack of food. The manatees’ plight has become so urgent that wildlife officials announced a rare emergency plan to feed them – a move that conservation groups say is too little, too late. Earthjustice is providing legal representation to the groups as part of our mission to protect endangered and imperiled species.

The EPA has a duty to keep manatees safe from the harms of water pollution.

  • Florida has repeatedly failed to rein in sources of pollution that cause algae outbreaks, such as wastewater-treatment plants, leaking septic systems, and fertilizer runoff.
  • The EPA approved the state’s water-quality standards, concluding they would not “adversely affect” manatees.
  • Under the Endangered Species Act, the EPA must consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to approve state water-quality standards to ensure they protect threatened and endangered wildlife.

Without their main food source, Florida’s iconic manatees began to die.

  • The high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus from pollutants killed thousands of acres of seagrass in Indian River Lagoon last year.
  • Manatees return to the lagoon’s warm water each winter to feed on seagrass. The lagoon supports more species of plants and animals than any other estuary in North America.
  • Last year’s winter famine overwhelmed rescue organizations, which towed hundreds of manatee carcasses to remote islands where they were left to rot.

Conservation groups are demanding that the EPA fulfill its responsibility under law to protect the manatees.

  • The groups – the Center for Biological Diversity, Save the Manatee Club, and Defenders of Wildlife – told the EPA that they will sue in 60 days if the agency does reinitiate consultation with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about how to keep manatees safe.
  • Earlier this month, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced emergency plans to feed the manatees romaine lettuce this winter and set up a temporary field response station at Indian River Lagoon.
  • But these measures are a Band-Aid that will not stop manatees from dying.
  • “It is painfully clear that Florida isn’t doing what’s necessary to control the sewage and fertilizer pollution that’s wrecking the Indian River Lagoon,” says Earthjustice attorney Elizabeth Forsyth. “It’s time for EPA to step in and enforce the Clean Water Act for the sake of the manatees and all the other creatures and people that rely on Florida’s waterways. If watching manatees starve isn’t the tipping point for the EPA to step in, I don’t know what is.”
Manatees swim in Florida's Crystal River.

Manatees swim in Florida's Crystal River.

atese / Getty Images