ORLANDO, Fla. – Three environmental groups, including the Save the Manatee Club, are suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to get it to reassess Florida’s water quality standards in the Indian River Lagoon, and help save Florida’s troubled manatee population.
The lawsuit, brought on by Earthjustice for the Center for Biological Diversity, Save the Manatee Club and Defenders of Wildlife, said the record loss of more than 1,000 manatees in 2021 due to starvation because of the loss of seagrass beds calls into question the agency’s approval of the state’s water quality criteria for nitrogen and phosphorus back in 2013.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared an “unusual mortality event” for manatees last year.
Some 537 manatees have died in 2022 so far, the majority of which were found in the Indian River Lagoon. An experimental feeding program helped deal with starvation, and rescue teams stepped up efforts to help troubled manatees, but with waters now warmer and manatees dispersing, that feeding program is no longer in use. The groups say manatees are still dealing with the effects of starvation.
The Indian River Lagoon is home to a myriad of sea creatures that spend their juvenile stages in the lagoon before they move on to the Atlantic Ocean. Other animals, including sea turtles and the endangered smalltooth sawfish, are also impacted by the pollution. Sea turtles are developing tumors, according to the lawsuit.
The groups blame the pollution on wastewater treatment discharges, leaking septic systems and fertilizer runoff. They want the EPA to begin consulting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service to reassess those water quality standards, saying not only are those standards not adequate, they are also “not adequately followed or enforced.”
The FWS asked the EPA to do so in 2021, but the EPA refused. The consultation is required under the Endangered Species Act.
Manatees were downgraded to “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 2017.
If you see a distressed or dead manatee, call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 1-888-404-3922.