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.


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?


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