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Florida Manatees Are Dying—So Conservation Groups Are Suing the EPA

Three conservation groups, represented by Earthjustice, are suing the EPA to protect Florida manatees who are impacted by ocean pollution.

Written by
Angelica Pizza

After laying in the sun for over an hour, you decide it's time for a refreshing dip in the ocean. You enter the blue water and exhale in sweet relief. But the moment is ruined by a piece of litter—a plastic water bottle, an empty bag of chips, an empty beer can—floating at your feet. Now imagine how marine animals feel living among ocean pollution. Particularly, manatees.

According to a recent press release from Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest environmental law organization, three conservation groups in Florida are suing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The conservation groups include the Save the Manatee Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Defenders of Wildlife. And the lawsuit was filed on May 10, 2022, in the Middle District of Florida. The lawsuit urges the EPA to protect manatees and sea turtles in Florida waters from ocean pollution.

The press release reveals that more than half of the 1,000+ manatee deaths in Florida in 2021 were because the manatees starved. And this starvation was—and still is—attributed to ocean pollution that has "killed thousands of acres of seagrass in the Indian River Lagoon."

Water quality is progressively getting worse, and marine animals are losing their food source. That's why conservation efforts are important.

“Manatees need clean water to live in—it’s that simple,” Earthjustice attorney Elizabeth Forsyth says in the press release. “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.”

Specifically, the conservation groups are urging the EPA to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service to help improve water quality—and overall habitat quality for the manatees, turtles, and other wildlife.

According to another press release from Earthjustice, the state of Florida has "failed to rein in sources of pollution" such as leaking septic systems, fertilizer runoff, and wastewater treatment plants. And these sources of pollution have actively caused algae outbreaks—which kill seagrass.

The EPA approved Florida's water-quality standards. However, manatees are still experiencing an  "Unusual Mortality Event."

In 2021, the number of manatee deaths in Florida represents 19% of the Atlantic population of Florida manatees—and nearly 13% of all manatees in the state. The deaths surpassed double the average annual death rate over the last five years.

Scientists also believe the loss of manatee life in this region is part of a greater biodiversity loss issue. Research shows that the dominant factors that impact species extinction and endangerment are largely human-made. For example, habitat destruction and chemical pollution are two leading causes of biodiversity loss.

And this isn't new news, per se. We already know ocean pollution is harming wildlife—not just in Florida. According to our research, coral reefs are dying as a result of increasing ocean temperatures, coral bleaching, and pollution. And we've already lost about 50% of coral reefs to date.

In response to the lawsuit, the EPA put out a statement saying the EPA’s Southeast region met to discuss the "agency’s commitment to improving water quality in and around the Indian River Lagoon." The statement also says the agency "recognizes that manatees are a keystone species for the coastal ecosystem."

The EPA plans to meet with Florida and federal agencies to evaluate the situation and ensure the organization is taking action.