Conservation Groups to Sue EPA After Mass Die-Off of Manatees in Florida

Three conservation groups—The Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and Save the Manatee Club—wrote in their notice of intent to sue the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Monday that Florida's federally approved water-quality regulations are inadequate, causing pollution-filled algae blooms that are killing manatees.

According to Florida officials, the number of manatees that died in the state this year was more than double the last five years' average annual death rate. The three groups said the algae blooms are to blame for more than 50 percent of this year's over 1,000 manatee deaths.

The conservation groups accused the EPA of approving Florida's water-quality standards despite "extensive evidence of that harmful pollution and Florida's failure to address it."

The notice letter, which gives the EPA 60 days to address the water pollution in Florida, asks the EPA to reconsider the water-quality standards and to reopen talks about them with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity, called regulators not adequately protecting water quality "disgraceful," in a news release.

"The mass death of these manatees, which was completely preventable, makes it clear just how critical it is that the EPA take swift action to protect the vibrant ecosystem they live in before it's too late," Lopez said.

Riviera Beach, Florida, manatees
Three conservation groups filed a notice of intent to sue the EPA on Monday if it continues to not address how Florida's water-quality standards are harming manatees. Above, manatees gather near the warm-water outflows from Florida Power & Light's plant in Riviera Beach on February 5, 2021. Greg Lovett/The Palm Beach Post via AP, File

The algae blooms killed thousands of acres of seagrass in the Indian River Lagoon, which highlights the inadequacy of Florida's federally approved water quality standards, the groups said in the notice letter.

The Indian River Lagoon is an "ecological wonder that supports not just manatees, but green sea turtles, snook, tarpon and a stunning diversity of marine life," Lopez noted.

The Indian River Lagoon includes important warm-water habitat for slow-moving mammals and supports more species of plants and animals than any other estuary in North America, the groups said in the news release.

"Until Florida is forced to rein in its rampant pollution, manatees will continue to die slow, agonizing deaths by starvation every winter," Lindsay Dubin, staff attorney at Defenders of Wildlife, said in the release. "The EPA must act immediately to improve water-quality standards lest it further jeopardize the future of this iconic species."

Last week, wildlife officials announced a pilot feeding plan that could save many manatees from starvation. However officials said manatees will still face the long-term threat of manmade water pollution stifling their food supply.

Florida Power & Light, the state's largest electric utility, is putting up $700,000 for a "temporary field response station" to feed the manatees at its plant in Cape Canaveral on the East Coast. The money is also for rescue and rehabilitation of distressed manatees, the company said in a news release.

The program has not been tried before.

The deaths this year represent 19 percent of the Atlantic population of Florida manatees, and 12 percent of all manatees in Florida.

Manatees were downlisted from "endangered" to "threatened" in 2017, but since then they have suffered significant setbacks from habitat degradation, red tide, unusually cold winters and now potential starvation from the seagrass die-off.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

manatee, Homosassa, Florida
The Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and Save the Manatee Club filed a notice on intent Monday saying they will sue the EPA in 60 days if it does not take steps to change Florida's water-quality standards to prevent pollution from killing manatees. Above, a manatee swims among seagrass in the Homosassa River on October 5, 2021, in Homosassa. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images