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Oct. 26, 2021, 1:57 p.m. EDT

Florida manatees starve to death as polluted water kills seagrass

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By Associated Press

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“Florida manatees desperately need us to help them by cleaning up and protecting their habitat,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director and senior attorney at The Center for Biological Diversity, a St. Petersburg-based nonprofit intent on saving imperiled species. The center and other groups plan to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to boost habitat protections for the manatee.

So far, the threatened designation has remained in place. A 2017 federal-state analysis pegged the chance of manatee extinction in Florida at less than a half-percent within the next 100 years.

Yet to environmental groups, the struggle of the manatee is a signal that humans are wrecking the coastal estuaries they and many other creatures need to survive.

The state Department of Environmental Protection has set in motion a program aimed at sharply reducing the load of harmful releases into the Indian River Lagoon by 2035.

The focus is on cutting introduction of nitrogen and phosphorous that is responsible for the seagrass-killing algae blooms. Projects to date have reduced releases of these nutrients by 37% of the ultimate goal, according to the state environmental agency.

Meanwhile, efforts to rescue and rehabilitate starving manatees continue at locations such as the SeaWorld theme park in Orlando to the Tampa zoo.

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium in September announced plans for a $10 million manatee rescue and rehabilitation facility, the fifth of its kind in Florida.

A coalition of 16 environmental and business groups called this summer for Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to declare the manatee die-off an emergency, which could focus resources and attention on the problem. DeSantis hasn’t done it, contending at a news conference it would “spook a lot of people” and possibly trigger economic harm.

“We have a lot of money at our disposal,” the governor said.

Back out on the water, fishing guide and activist Fafeita said it’s not just the manatees — seagrass reduction also affects other species such as blue crabs and speckled sea trout.

“You know, the list just goes on and on and on,” Fafeita said. “Right now, our big concern is the manatee. We’re not going to catch that many fish this year. It’s affecting us some. The true impact to be next year.”

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