Last week, an environmental nonprofit called Bear Warriors United Inc. filed suit in the Middle District of Florida in Orlando against the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, accusing the agency of failing to protect manatees under the Endangered Species Act.
The group, which usually acts on behalf of black bears, fighting to end hunts, has taken up the manatee cause, accusing the agency of failing to enforce clean water regulations by allowing too many septic tanks and sewage spills to foul and kill the sea cow’s staple seagrass diet.
“I never thought I would see starving manatees and their extinction from the Indian River Lagoon, but that is what’s happening now,” Greg Pflug, a Florida native and Bear Warriors member who lives in Geneva, wrote in an affidavit for the suit.
Environmentalists’ lawsuits more than two decades ago led to Florida creating statewide arrays of go-slow zones, in hopes it would save the sea cow. But pollution that fuels excess algae kept killing manatees, anyway.
Now environmentalists are suing the state again, this time to stop the pollution that boating groups long had warned was a much bigger long-term threat to the species than boats going too fast.
A lawsuit to stop the pollution of the lagoon
Bear Warrior’s suit seeks the following from the court:
- An injunction requiring DEP to “permanently cease its authorization and permitting of the discharge of nitrogen from septic tanks and wastewater plants” into the northern Indian River Lagoon;
- An order requiring DEP to “provide medical monitoring and veterinarian care together with proper nutritional forage to all manatees in the northern lagoon until sufficient seagrass can sustain manatees there;
- Orders enjoining DEP from issuing approvals for septic tanks or sewer plant hookups for new construction within the northern lagoon watershed;
- Declare that DEP has “incidentally taken” manatees in the northern lagoon within the meaning of the Endangered Species Act.
Despite recent changes in state law designed to force sewer plants by 2025 to remove nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage to advanced treatment standards before discharging wastewater to the Indian River Lagoon, Lesley Blackner is not convinced that will be enforced.
“They walk back on laws all the time,” said Blackner, a Palm Beach attorney representing Bear Warriors. “Most environmental laws are not enforced.
“They’ve kicked the can down the road 50 years from now,” Blackner said of state management plans to clean up water basins. “I don’t see a real incentive for them. They’re not really serious.”
“All that poop and pee has to go somewhere, and our government says it’s okay to put it in the lagoon. State law allows this. State law expressly authorizes the use of the IRL as a toilet.”
Ralph DeMeo, a partner at Guilday Law in Tallahassee, co-counsel on the case, could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.
Some members of Bear Warriors operate ecotourism businesses “and therefore have a direct economic interest in the wellbeing of manatees in the north IRL (Indian River Lagoon), ” the groups complaint says.
“I have been fascinated and in love with manatees my entire life,” Bear Warriors Executive Director Katrina Shadix, of Geneva, wrote in her affidavit for the suit. “I could not believe that the lagoon ecosystem had completely collapsed and become an absolute dead zone, devoid of any plant life for the manatees, even microalgae.”
State manatee death examination reports tug at the heartstrings of Shadix and others involved with sea cow conservation. There was “Fingerchunk”, a male manatee first sighted on Jan. 13, 1978 at the Riviera Beach power plant. He was found emaciated and dead in the Barge Canal in Merritt Island this past March.
To them, such deaths tend to point back to the same causes: Septic tanks and sewer plants within the northern Indian River Lagoon basin release “high concentrations of ammonium and phosphates (“nutrients”) derived from human feces and urine (“sewage”)” into the north lagoon,” the 60-day notice-to-sue says.
Population growth in the north Indian River Lagoon basin yields increasing volumes of sewage containing toxic nutrients that leach into the lagoon. Sewage- derived nutrients are the primary cause of the north lagoon becoming “an ecological dead zone, obliterating” seagrass and biodiversity, the notice says.
Almost half of manatee deaths happening in Brevard
According to the latest figures from Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, at least 337 manatees had died in Brevard through Nov. 1, almost half — 46% — of this year’s 727 manatee deaths. By Nov. 1 last year, 987 manatees had died, compared with a 5-year average of 615 manatees for that time period. So far, 66 manatees have died statewide when watercraft hit them, compared with a 5-year average of 93 manatee deaths due to watercraft.
Last year, 358 manatees died in Brevard, about a third of the record total 1,101 manatee deaths statewide, where typically a third of the sea cow’s population resides.
The manatee death toll got so bad that by in March 2021, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had declared the die-off an Unusual Mortality Event.
Then, in a first-of-its kind pilot project to try to stave off further starvation, state and federal biologists fed manatees at the Florida Power & Light power plant last winter and through the end of March 2022.
The last straw for Bear Warriors Executive Director Katrina Shadix was one of the largest sewage spills in recent years in Brevard. Titusville discharged at least 7.2 million gallons of sewage into ponds at Sand Point Park in late December 2020, when an old sewer pipe broke beneath one of the ponds, which flow to the lagoon. The city put in the artificial islands in lieu of a $199,000 DEP penalty.
After the sewage release, more manatees began floating up dead nearby. “I considered that the final nail in the coffin,” Shadix said. “It killed my soul and broke my heart to see that.”
An adult manatee needs 100 to 200 pounds of seagrass per day to survive. Shadix’s group also has launched a campaign to nudge the state to allow harvesting of hydrilla and water hyacinth plants from ponds and other waters to feed to manatees during the winter.
Seagrass loss set stage for sea cow deaths
The sea cow’s starvation dates way before Titusville’s sewage spill. After a few cold winters a decade ago, a “superbloom” of algae that followed killed more than 60% of the Indian River Lagoon’s seagrass — and 90% of the grass coverage in some areas. Manatees had to shift to gobbling up an algae called Caulerpa. That shift in diet changed the mix of flora and fauna in their guts, contributing to manatees’ health declines.
Bear Warriors’ suit cites the initial report by Brevard County that its south beaches sewer plant discharged a minimum of 7.2 million gallons of wastewater during Hurricane Ian, which hit Brevard as a tropical storm. The county later would report that the plant released more than twice that volume during the storm, an estimated 15.4 million gallons of reuse water.
Blackner likened the case to one she worked on to protect sea turtles in the late 1990s to force Volusia County to ban cars driving on the most active sea turtle nesting areas of the beach during the turtle’s nesting season.
Laurilee Thompson, owner of Dixie Crossroads Seafood Restaurant in Titusville watched the city grow from a sleepy fishing and citrus community of 5,000 residents into a small city of 45,000 in just a few years.
Thompson recalls commercially fishing in the lagoon from the mid-1960’s through the mid 1970’s, starting she was 10 years old pushing a net through the seagrass by Haulover Canal to catch bait shrimp for her grandfather to sell at his pier.
“The sights and sounds that I enjoyed while fishing on the river in my youth are forever ingrained in my being,” Thompson wrote in her affidavit. “I cherish those memories as they and pictures are all that is left of the Indian River before it was turned into a toilet.”
“If they could shriek, our Indian River would reverberate with their cries,” Thompson wrote. “How long can we stand silent and allow this sad annihilation to continue? It tears my guts up to helplessly watch the trailers with dead manatees passing through my town. Aren’t there government agencies that are supposed to prevent atrocities like this from happening?”
The federal government listed manatees as endangered in 1967, before Congress approved the Endangered Species Act in 1973. From 1973 until 2017, the manatee was listed as an “endangered” species. Then in 2017, the federal government reclassified the species to “threatened.”
How you can help manatees
- Call FWC’s Wildlife Alert toll-free number: 1-888-404-FWCC (1-888-404-3922) or #FWC or *FWC on a cellphone if you see a sick, injured, dead or tagged manatee.
- Boaters will find them easier to spot if they wear polarized sunglasses and keep a lookout for signs of manatees such as the circular “footprints” they trace on the top or their snouts sticking up out the water.
- Look, but don’t touch manatees. Keep a distance when boating, even if you are steering a canoe, kayak or paddleboard.
- Support FWC manatee rescues and research by renewing your tag with a “Save the Manatee” specialty license plate
- But and display a manatee decal. The stickers feature original artwork and are available from your local Tax Collector’s office with a $5 donation.
- The Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida offers another way to support: https://wildlifeflorida.givingfuel.com/marine-mammal-fund
Jim Waymer is an environment reporter at FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Waymer at 321-261-5903 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Or find him on Twitter: @JWayEnviro or on Facebook: www.facebook.com/jim.waymer