Manatees in crisis: conservation governance and the 2013 die off

2013 Florida Manatee Crisis

Given the 2013 die off that produced a record-shattering number of manatee fatalities, the plan for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Florida Manatee Recovery Plan needs revision.  2013 saw a record breaking 15% loss of its manatee population. At this point in time, 769 manatees have been found dead in Florida’s nearshore waters. The Indian River Lagoon ecosystem, which made national news repeatedly for its black “sludgy” water, saw over 200 manatee deaths.

Juvenile manatee seen in Jonathan Dickenson State Park, Florida January 2013
Juvenile manatee seen in Jonathan Dickenson State Park, Florida January 2013

It is no longer fast-moving watercrafts that cause the majority of manatee deaths but something more sinister and unseen: every-day, legal pollution. South Florida has ubiquitous green lawns in front of millions of suburban homes that fill the coastal waters with millions of gallons of fertilizer- infused runoff. Industrial Agriculture, despite Florida’s Polluter Pays amendment, causes heavily polluted runoff that drains the Everglades Agricultural Area, concentrating in lake Okeechobee, ultimately getting discharged in local manatee habitat. This discharge occurs at exponential rates during heavy rain seasons like this, to prevent Lake O from overflowing. Besides fertilizer, miles and miles of impermeable concrete facilitate pollution-ridden runoff, allowing it to rapidly drain into our slow-moving coastal waters that manatee depend on as habitat. This pollution fuels massive algal blooms that cause die offs and sickness in our manatee population. It also absorbs into marine vegetation, the food source for Florida manatee.

I saw this manatee recently in Jonathan Dickenson State Park in Jupiter, Florida

The Manatee Recovery Plan is the key document for implementing meaningful steps to reduce human caused manatee fatalities. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife (FWS) service drafted this plan with the help of stakeholders that include federal and state agencies, NGO’s, boating and anglers groups, and businesses that depend on access to manatee habitat. A stakeholder table is included at the end of this piece in order to show how unequipped the original stakeholder make-up is to deal with pollution issues.  We need to revisit this document and address agricultural runoff, lawn-fertilization regulations, and impermeable surfacing in areas most adjacent to coastal waters. Only meaningful steps in this direction can stop the algal blooms and die offs.

Science and Conservation Governance

Runoff-sourced pollution seeps into our coastal ecosystems that act like natural sinks for pollution: mangrove and seagrass ecosystems. This is where manatees graze for their primary food source, manatee and turtle grass. These ecosystems are the first source for filtering out hazardous pollutants. If the pollution or nutrient (fertilizer) load is too high, algal blooms occur. Pollution-infused seagrass beds and nutrient-loaded nearshore waters have not been definitively linked with manatee fatalities by scientific studies yet. For this reason, regulations lag. This raises three questions:

1. Why don’t we have this science yet?

It is expensive, it is political, it is extremely recent (the die off is still underway), and it needs many years or data that we do not have. Governor Rick Scott just vetoed 2 million dollars in funding to perform emergency scientific assessments of these ecosystems, including the Indian River Lagoon where 200 manatees fell ill and died.

2. Why can’t we act on tougher runoff regulations?

Because of the lack of scientific studies, special interests that depend on an ability to freely pollute can and will prevent it.

3. What do we do now?

I argue that given how highly endangered manatee are, we need to use the precautionary principle. Because we lost the largest proportion of the manatee population since we started keeping records, aggressive action needs to be taken to stop polluting the coastal waterways where pollution accumulates in our sea grasses. There exists solid, reputable science on pollution, viable habitat, and strong manatee populations. We must use what we have, and our common sense, and push for regulations to stem the untenable levels of runoff.  Furthermore, Floridians should be outraged at Governor Scott’s vetoing of $2 million for Indian River Lagoon research. It is development interests that blame “lack of science” for blocking regulations, while their pet politician refuses to fund the science.

Stakeholder Group Classification of interest
Florida FWS Conservation Commission State environment agency
Vero’s tackle and sport Boaters/anglers
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Federal Agency
Marine Mammal Commission Federal Agency
U.S. Geological Survey Federal Agency
Florida Department of Environmental Protection State environment agency
Lowry Park and Zoological Gardens Manatee habitat plus human recreation site
Florida Power and Light Business dependent on access to manatee habitat
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Federal environment agency
Eckerd College and Mote Marine Mammal Lab Academia
Southwest Florida Industry Association and Continental Harbor Marina Business dependent on access to manatee habitat
Save the Manatee Club NGO
Citizens Public
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