Florida manatee die off: advocate science and adaptive management

Recently I received an email from a conservation activist in the South Florida area asking me for some type of data or study that shows a causal relationship between runoff-sourced pollution, algal blooms, and the 2013-2014 manatee die off crisis.  As I noted in a recent blog entry on manatee population dynamics and pollution, part of the reason that the manatee die off will not trigger an immediate policy response is that these hard scientific links do not exist. That doesn’t mean that the causal relationship isn’t there. It means we have not yet had the money to fund a study, the time/wherewithal to keep stakeholders interested in funding and undertaking the study, or a long enough time span to establish causality.

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A juvenile manatee curious about our kayak

In other words, you cannot say, “This study that I hold in my hand says that lawn runoff and industrial agriculture pollution are permeating Florida’s waterways at unprecedented levels. Enforcement is lax or nonexistent in favor of development and agriculture, and as a result, our report shows that this runoff is causing algal blooms that lead to conditions where manatees die at never before seen rates.”

I responded with a bit of information from Larry Susskind and Jeffrey Cruikshank’s iconic book in dispute resolution: Breaking the Impasse (1987) . The book describes “advocate science,” where stakeholders (especially those with a lot of power and money) could hypothetically hire their own experts to produce scientific and technical pieces that blur the links between marine pollution and marine mammal die off.  Or even worse, they could produce a study showing pollution has no adverse effects on marine habitat or food source (seagrass beds) for manatees using evidence skewed to produce the desired result. As recent investigative pieces have shown, advocate science can reach criminal levels especially when large corporations are involved.

How to proceed?

The precautionary principle says that when facing a scenario where scientific consensus doesn’t exist, the burden of proof is on industrial agriculture and the fertilizer industry to prove that runoff is not the source of algal blooms endangering the already endangered manatee.  Besides the precautionary principle, Florida possesses a polluter pays amendment in the state constitution, granting statutory precedent to holding industry financially accountable for their negative externalities. Lastly, the theoretical and practical scholarship on adaptive management has empowered agencies in the past few decades to make better environmental management decisions as time goes by (and as information increases through monitoring and data collection).  Federal and state natural resource agencies universally rely on adaptive management, and acknowledge that it allows for decision making on environmental policy and management in the absence of absolute certainty.

We are seeing some momentum in Florida (maybe) towards development of scientific consensus on the manatee die off, and what policy to implement in order to react to the crisis. Much of this information is scattershot, hard to find, or hidden behind paywalls. Perhaps it is because the fertilizer industry is a major funder of the science behind the health of the Indian River Lagoon, one of the major manatee die off habitats?

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