Manatees are imperiled from all sides. In downlisting manatees from “endangered” to “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asserted that threats are under control. As this summer has sadly demonstrated, nothing could be further from the truth.
The biggest threats manatees continue to face are the result of human impacts. As of Aug. 12, 97 manatees are believed to have died from red tide in Southwest Florida. Others are victims of the toxic cyanobacterial bloom associated with discharges from Lake Okeechobee. Together, these algae blooms consume oxygen from the water, cause respiratory and neurological distress, and kill acres of aquatic vegetation essential to manatee survival.
It is imperative to acknowledge that while red tides do occur naturally, the frequency and intensity of recent events are firmly attributable to human activity. Land-based nutrients feed red tides, which are further exacerbated by the deluge released from Lake Okeechobee. The sources of these nutrients are many. Septic systems, agricultural fertilizer, animal waste, and urban runoff are poorly managed throughout the state and end up in our springs, rivers, and coastal systems where they fuel the toxic blooms that threaten both natural and economic resources.
This year also continues to be a record year for manatee mortality from watercraft strikes. So far in 2018, boat collisions have resulted in 75 manatee deaths. This past winter was also the worst for mortality from cold stress since 2011.
Meanwhile, the laws that have protected manatees and their habitat for decades are under attack. In Congress, the Endangered Species Act faces an onslaught of bills designed to weaken it. The Department of Interior recently proposed new rules undermining the Act, including removal of key provisions that protect threatened species and regulations governing interagency consultation procedures. These regulations are crucial to protecting manatees and their habitat.
Alarm bells are ringing with the public and media now that the problem is so visible, but this problem has been brewing for years. Save the Manatee Club has attempted to address the root causes of these problems, by working with the state to develop stronger plans to manage nutrients in important watersheds and to establish additional protected areas for manatees.
But we need the public’s help. Clean water and the protection of our nation’s wildlife are nonpartisan issues, and we need leaders who understand the importance of these resources. For information on contacting your elected officials and other actions you can take, please go to savethemanatee.org/action
Anne Harvey Holbrook is the staff attorney for the Save the Manatee Club in Maitland, where her work focuses on water quality and quantity and endangered species issues. She has her JD from Georgetown Law and her masters in aquatic environmental science from Florida State University.