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Environmental groups sue the federal government to protect Florida's manatees

Two manatees swim together
Lauren Whiddon
Fresh Take Florida
Four environmental groups announced they are suing the federal government for failing to protect the West Indian Manatee.

More than 2,000 of the gentle sea cows have died in Florida in the last two years, mainly from algae blooms that smothers the sea grasses they need to survive.

Four environmental groups announced Tuesday that they are suing the federal government for failing to protect the West Indian Manatee.

The manatee's numbers have dropped precipitously in the past two years. The biggest amount of deaths took place in the Indian River Lagoon along Florida's Atlantic coast, where too many nutrients in the water from human use spurred the growth of algae, which smothered seagrasses that manatees eat.

The algae blooms and red tide have killed nearly 2,000 manatees in the past two years. This means one out of every five manatees in the state have died recently.

Federal environmental officials had de-listed the species from endangered to threatened in 2017.

In November, the groups petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reclassify the mammals from threatened to endangered. Federal law requires a response to that petition within three months. It has now been five months, said Ragan Whitlock, an attorney with the group Center for Biological Diversity, based in St. Petersburg.

“I’m appalled that the Fish and Wildlife Service hasn’t responded to our urgent request for increased protections for these desperately imperiled animals,” Whitlock said. “It’s painfully clear that manatees need full protection under the Endangered Species Act, and they need it now. While we’re submitting this notice, I’m hopeful the Service will act quickly to restore full protections.”

Other environmental groups taking part in lawsuit include Harvard Animal Law & Policy Clinic, Miami Waterkeeper, and Frank S. González García, an engineer who advocates for the species' survival.

“We initially hoped that the Service would respond to our petition quickly, given the overwhelming scientific evidence showing that manatees need increased protection,” said Savannah Bergeron, an eighth-generation Floridian and student attorney at the Harvard Animal Law & Policy Clinic. “But as no response came, and manatee populations continued to decline, it became clear that more must be done to protect these beloved gentle giants."

Whitlock said upgrading the manatee's status to endangered would spur action to contain pollution from wastewater treatment discharges, leaking septic systems, fertilizer runoff and other sources — that is helping to kill sea grasses in the Indian River Lagoon.

A recent study also found more than half of sampled Florida manatees are chronically exposed to glyphosate, a potent herbicide applied to sugarcane and aquatic weeds. Discharges from Lake Okeechobee containing glyphosate have also resulted in higher concentrations of glyphosate in the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.