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We’re Suing: Manatees Need More than Lettuce from our Leaders

Under the EPA's watch, manatees in Florida are dying at high rates as pollution kills their main food source. Conservation groups represented by Earthjustice are now suing the agency for failing to step in.

In 2021, over a thousand of Florida's manatees died and more than half of those deaths were due to lack of food. An officially-declared "Unusual Mortality Event" continues to this day. The manatees’ plight has become so urgent that wildlife officials last winter carried out a a rare emergency plan to feed them — a move that was too little, too late.

Earthjustice is using the power of the law to compel the government to fix the pollution at the heart of the problem. The case is part of our larger work fighting the drivers of the biodiversity crisis.

The EPA abandoned manatees to Florida's inadequate water quality measures.

  • 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 algae outbreaks kill off the seagrass that manatees eat.
  • 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 measures to ensure they protect threatened and endangered wildlife.
  • In December 2021, after hundreds of manatees died from starvation, conservation groups threatened to sue the EPA if it didn't reinitiate consultation over the measures (it didn't).

Without their main food source, Florida’s iconic manatees have been dying.

  • Excess 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 is one of the most biodiverse estuaries in North America.
  • In a Band-Aid effort, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced emergency plans to feed the manatees romaine lettuce last winter and set up a temporary field response station at the Indian River Lagoon.

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

  • Earthjustice is representing three conservation groups in this case: Save the Manatee Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Center for Biological Diversity
  • These groups are pushing the court to make EPA restart consultations with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service to reassess its approval of Florida's water quality measures for the Indian River Lagoon.
  • "Manatees need clean water to live in — it's that simple,” says Earthjustice attorney Elizabeth Forsyth. “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.”
Manatees swim in Florida's Crystal River.

Manatees swim in Florida's Crystal River.

atese / Getty Images