Enviro groups plan to sue EPA over Florida manatee deaths

More than a thousand manatees have starved to death in Florida this year, and environmental groups are now officially pointing the finger at the Environmental Protection Agency as the culprit.

Earthjustice, Save the Manatee Club and several other groups announced his intention to continue the federal agency for failing to protect endangered species, especially by setting water quality standards low enough to allow pollution-fueled algae blooms to kill the seagrass on which manatees depend for their survival .

The lawsuit seeks to force the EPA to reassess the amount of pollution it is allowing in the Indian River Lagoon. The state set limits on phosphorus and nitrogen, nutrients from sewage, and fertilizers that cause algae blooms, in 2013 and the EPA approved them.

“Almost a decade later, we are in the total ecological collapse of the Indian River Lagoon.” Earthjustice lawyer Elizabeth Forsyth said. “It’s time for the EPA to take a step back and reassess these standards.”

This month, the situation got so dire that Florida took an unprecedented step: to break its own laws and feed starving sea cows romaine lettuce to help them survive the winter.

Patrick Rose, executive director of Save the Manatee Club, said manatees have relied on clumps of non-nutritious algae, mangrove lower limbs and waterfront lawns to survive. They’ve even been spotted rummaging through sand and mud to scavenge for anything that contains calories.

In the Indian River Lagoon, a hotspot for manatees on the east coast, there were 77,000 acres of seagrass in 2011.

“We have lost about 95% of the seagrass biomass since then,” Rose said.

Rose, who worked for 45 years to protect the species, said it was among the worst moments of his career for manatees. From December 2020 until this year, he said about 19% of the east coast manatee population has perished. Population growth will be slow work.

“If you could flip a switch and there was plenty of food for each manatee overnight, it would take several more years to get back to that population.” In the current scenario, it looks like a decade, ”he said.

Manatees were downgraded by the US Fish and Wildlife Service from Endangered to Threatened in 2017, a controversial move that some saw as a victory and a sign of recovery for manatees and others as a premature removal of protections for them. vulnerable creatures.

Rose said he believed the relisting affected the extent to which agencies heeded warnings from environmental groups about the growing threat.

“It is incredible that they are willing to ignore the seriousness of this problem until it leads to this kind of disaster,” he said. “This kind of critical need arose out of things that were, frankly, preventable. This situation should never have happened.

EPA spokeswoman Allison Wise said the agency was reviewing the notice of intent to sue.

“The EPA is concerned about the manatee deaths and is committed to working with Florida and other partners to implement nutrient reduction strategies,” she said in an email.

If you spot a hungry or injured manatee, you can report it to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) by calling 1-888-404-FWCC (3922).

Alex Harris covers climate change for the Miami Herald, including how communities in South Florida are adapting to a warming world. She attended the University of Florida.

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