One of Florida’s most iconic creatures is under siege.
The state’s official marine mammal — the West Indian Manatee — is suffering through a grim year. It’s expected, as soon as next week, to be the deadliest on record.
Why? The most likely answer is starvation. There’s a manatee famine in some of the Sunshine State’s most ecologically important estuaries.
The worst year for manatees wasn’t that long ago. In 2013, 830 manatees perished for a variety of reasons. That followed a horrible 2011 when hundreds of the sirenians died in the Indian River Lagoon in Brevard County following a massive die-off of seagrass caused by a brown tide.
Like many tragedies, the 2021 version had plenty of warning signs. For years, Florida’s waterways have been struggling. Pollution, nutrient loading and runoff have fouled the habitat where these gentle creatures live, feed and carry on their blood lines.
Who is to blame? Well, that can be shared widely.
What can be done? For starters, every resource the state and federal government has in its tool box needs to be put into play.
Members of Congress have called for action from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That’s a start.
Environmental organizations and local governments have have sent letters to the feds requesting manatees be listed again as endangered to give the animals more protection.
What has the state of Florida done? Surprisingly little.
The incomprehensible inaction begins with Gov. Ron DeSantis. During a press conference in Fort Myers May 12, DeSantis was asked specifically whether he’d declare a state of emergency regarding the plight of the manatees. His answer sounded less like a leader of the nation’s third most populous state and more like Larry Vaughn, the mayor of Amity Island from the movie “Jaws,” afraid to ruin the tourism business by admitting publicly a murderous shark was patrolling its shores.
“There’s no need to do that,” DeSantis said at the news conference. “I think it would spook a lot of people. It would harm a lot of the folks in our community to do that. And we have a lot of money at our disposal.”
Money for what? Romaine lettuce?
This problem must be addressed head-on. Poor water quality has led to years of degradation of the habitat in Florida’s coastal estuaries. In the Indian River Lagoon alone, over 47,000 acres of seagrass meadows have died off. That’s a lot of manatee food there.
To speed efforts to save the manatee, the governor must declare a state of emergency. Empower the Department of Environmental Protection to enact emergency regulations to stop polluters, levy penalties and remove nutrient pollution from runoff.
The governor has seen the poisonous blue-green toxic algae with his own eyes. He flew over Lake Okeechobee with U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, on May 10 and described to TCPalm what he saw. He must be more proactive to fix these water quality issues.
It’s not just for the manatees. Our waterways drive tourism, real estate and our economy. DeSantis likes to be billed as a pro-environment, pro-business leader.
So why’s he been so slow on the draw?
A state of emergency would enable state resources to mobilize quickly to help clean Florida’s waterways.
It may be the last hope for the manatee.
— Treasure Coast Newspapers