Protecting Starving Florida Manatees from Polluted Waterways

Overdevelopment, sewage spills, chemical spraying, thermal pollution, and industrial waste are just a few of the issues that our springs, lagoons, canals, and rivers face. If sources of pollution in Florida's waterways are not addressed, there is no future for manatees. 

It is not just manatees that are suffering, although it is one of the most visible symptoms of our poor water quality. Manatees consume nearly 100 pounds of greenery every day and no longer have seagrass resulting in starvation. These gentle animals are at risk of extinction after being removed from the endangered species list in 2017. Water quality problems are a primary cause of why Manatees are being affected. Scientists have been warning the government of seagrass decline since the early 90s.

Water Quality Issues Across Florida

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Harmful algal bloom Indian River Lagoon.jpg

Biscayne Bay: Known for its shallow lagoon waters, Biscayne Bay is the largest estuary on the coast of southeast Florida. It is among Florida's most developed and populated coastline. The pollution load into this bay has made seagrasses disappear, making it a desolate desert. 

 

Indian River Lagoon (IRL): Known as the most biodiverse habitat in North America, and in 2021, over 1,000 manatees perished, which established an Unusual Mortality Event (UME). In 2011, a harmful algae bloom wiped out over 170,000 acres of seagrass, and in 2013, the lagoon was labeled a "killing zone" by world news agencies after manatees, dolphins, and pelicans died. Scientists attempted to warn leaders that the water quality and seagrass were declining for decades before these disasters began. 

 

Lake Apopka: Florida's fourth-largest Lake fed by a natural spring and rainfall. Lake Apopka was the recipient of pesticide pollution for 50 years. At one time, it was one of the state's most contaminated lakes. One of the worst bird deaths in United States history happened here, and the former agricultural land used DDT which was causing alligators to have reproductive failure. 

 

Lake Okeechobee: The largest freshwater lake in Florida and largest natural freshwater lake in the United States. The Lake has become heavily polluted by runoff from agriculture and development. Water from the Lake is routinely discharged to rivers on the east and west coast. In the rainy season, a massive amount of nutrient-polluted water is sent to the Caloosahatchee River and exacerbates harmful algal blooms. 

 

Tampa Bay: A large natural harbor and shallow estuary experienced one of the worst red tide events after an abandoned and mismanaged phosphate mine spilled millions of gallons of wastewater. The bay experiences numerous human sewage spills that feed harmful algae and add nutrients. The nitrogen loads in the 1970s were estimated to be over 8 million kg/yr. The bay has experienced reduced water clarity seagrass reduction. 

Seagrass supports thousands of marine animals, providing a home and a feeding area for more than 1,000 fish species, turtles, seahorses, and manatees. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Are manatees native to Florida? Manatees have been traced in the fossil record to 50 million years ago. A common myth regarding manatees is they are an invasive species in Florida imported to control exotic aquatic plants. Florida manatees are in fact native to the United States and can be frequently found in Alabama, and Georgia.

 

What's wrong with the manatees? The manatees are starving due to the absence of seagrass and plants that were destroyed by pollution. Manatees also face cold stress, accidents with boats, exposure to harmful chemicals, and invasive Plecos armored catfish that cling to their back, altering their behaviors and ability to rest.  

What do manatees eat? Manatees feed on a wide variety of submerged, emergent, floating, and shoreline vegetation. Manatees in Florida feed on more than 60 species of plants, including turtle grass, manatee grass, shoal grass, mangrove leaves, various algae, water hyacinth, acorns, and hydrilla.

 

Can you feed the manatees?  It is illegal to feed manatees.

Did the manatees destroy the seagrass? Seagrass has disappeared because of pollution. Scientists began to document the seagrass decline in the early 90s after cities spent decades dumping sewage directly into the water. In normal circumstances, manatees don't eat seagrass from the root. They graze its top, and it grows taller in clean water. Similar to how cows graze grass. 

Do manatees have predators? They do not have many predators in the wild. However, humans are a significant danger to the population because they have impacted their habitats. 

Did the manatee's poop ruin the water? Manatee waste is natural and doesn't carry diseases like bacteria from human sewage and septic tanks.

 

Can you eat manatees? Seminole Tribe used manatees as a food source but in 1893 there was a statewide hunting ban, and in 1967 they were added to the endangered species list. ​It is illegal to hunt them, and even if it wasn't they have high levels of harmful chemicals in their blood. ​

Are the manatees overpopulated? In 2017, the manatees were downlisted from endangered to threatened. The downlisting was opposed by scientific experts, numerous organizations, and individuals. 

Who do I call if I see a manatee in distress? Call FWC's Wildlife Alert Toll-Free Number: 1-888-404-FWCC (1-888-404-3922), press "7" to speak with an operator.

Visit Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for more information. 

Visit Save the Manatee Club for more information.

Thermal Pollution from Power Plants Disrupts Manatee's Migration Patterns

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Photography Documentation by Stel Bailey | Cape Canaveral Power Plant in Port St. John, Florida

Cold weather negatively impacts manatees. When the water temperatures dip below 68 degrees it causes cold stress-related illnesses for the manatees. Their bodies are not designed to insulate them from the cold, so you see manatees gather in canals and at power plants for warm water discharges. 

 

Power plants are significant contributors to thermal pollution, which changes oxygen levels in the water and destroys ecosystems. The warm water that comes off these plants can cause suffocation to plants and feed harmful algae. The Cape Canaveral power plant has $4.7 million worth of heating equipment, and their plant is a refuge for manatees during the winter. Florida Power & Light (FPL) works with state and federal officials to disrupt the manatee's natural migration patterns by using the warm temperatures from the plant to keep the manatees warm during the winter. 

The impact on migrating wildlife such as manatees is that their habitat and food are damaged. Power plants not only attract some species but displace others. The industrial discharges make manatees dependent on the power plant sites, which ensure consistent warm water. 

Coastal power plants were built between the 1940s and 1970s, when manatees shifted their winter range northward and reduced cold-related mortality. The EPA decided to exempt older power plants and require standards to mitigate fish kills and other environmental effects. 

The Clean Water Act that passed in 1972 brought restrictions on thermal pollution, but Officials cut a deal with the industry, allowing plants to keep pushing out hot water even after upgrades. The industry was able to get good public relations and saved billions of dollars this way. 

The industry lobbied to allow utilities to pass costs for environmental compliance to the customers through their bills. The law was passed in the early 1990s. FPL has recouped over $22 million since 2009 to install and operate heater systems. If the plants were closed, the Atlantic Coast manatees would likely be further south in Biscayne Bay or the Everglades. 

Florida Power and Light (FPL) thermal pollution has not only disrupted the manatee's migration patterns by making them dependent on warm water discharges but is passing the cost to their customers. 

PFAS Found in Manatees Blood & Need for Toxic Studies

Manatees also have cancer-causing chemicals known as PFAS in their blood, tested at the highest levels of toxic fluorinated chemicals ever measured in the species. Florida has some of the nation's highest detections of these chemicals.

PFAS are not known to break down in the environment and have become global pollutants threatening people and wildlife. Once in our bodies, they stick around - with half-lives in people of up to eight years. These chemicals never break down and build up in our blood and organs; they are often known as "forever chemicals." These chemical compounds are being found in waterways surrounding the industries that use them.

We asked the Environmental Protection Agency to provide biologists funding to do more in-depth necropsies on the manatees to learn more about the transfer of toxins such as DDT, Diquat, PFAS, and glyphosate from the water.

Spraying Manatee Food with Harmful Chemicals

Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) contracts sprayers to keep waterways clear of invasive plants such as hydrilla. The spraying of chemicals feeds harmful algal blooms, which kill seagrass and endanger our ecosystems. Every summer, there is a fertilizer ban in effect, and some cities have gone as far as banning Glyphosate weed killers. Still, other government agencies are using them directly on our waterways. 

Researchers found that more than half of Florida's manatees have glyphosate in their bodies. Glyphosate exposure can cause kidney and liver damage and impact the immune system. The chemicals are sprayed from airboats, helicopters, trucks, and backpacks. Not only does glyphosate break down and release phosphorus into water bodies, but it also causes plants to decompose and release nutrients that fuel algae growth.

There have been no studies showing how glyphosate or diquat affects manatees' health even though glyphosate was found in manatee blood. Although there is no study correlating glyphosate exposure to manatee health, it doesn't rule out that harmful chemicals could affect manatees. In the 1940s, DDT was applied, and it wasn't until 1972 that the EPA finally canceled it, ten years after a marine biologist exposed the pesticide hazards. Rachel Carson was a marine biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that released the book Silent Spring which included research on how the chemical entered the food chain and accumulated in the fatty tissues of animals and did genetic damage to human beings. When it started getting used, only a few people expressed concern for DDT. 

Historically, the government hasn't been the best at regulating artificial chemicals or holding polluters accountable. The EPA has only studied a handful of chemicals. Nearly all substances the industry wants to take and sell are allowed because of the lack of toxicity data.

There are better alternatives, such as mechanical harvesting machines that remove nuisance plants from waterbodies without polluting our waterways with carcinogenic chemicals. 

  1. Digestive Efficiencies of Ex Situ and In Situ West Indian Manatees: journals.uchicago.edu/doi/10.1086/673545

  2. Using the West Indian Manatee as a Mechanism for Invasive Aquatic Plant Management in Florida:  Nova Southeastern University

  3. Chronic exposure to glyphosate in Florida manatee: Environmental International

Other Sources of Pollution

Water pollution occurs when harmful substances contaminate a body of water, degrading the water quality and harming the ecosystem can create a chain effect, endangering entire aquatic environments. 

Nutrient Pollution includes nitrates and phosphates that come from waste and fertilizer runoff. This causes algal blooms and stimulates algae growth, reducing oxygen levels in the water and suffocating plants and animals. In some cases, these harmful blooms can produce neurotoxins that affect wildlife and human health. 

Aging sewer pipes cause breaks and releases of toxic sewage into our streets and waterways. This stinky mess results in fish, crab, oyster, and plankton deaths. Leaks happen across the state weekly. Raw sewage may contain bacteria, hepatitis A, and parasites. These sewage spills can disrupt ecosystems, pollute rivers and lakes, and contaminate drinking water. 

 

Sewage sludge (biosolids) contains a highly carried amount of organic chemicals, toxic metals, chemical irritants, and pathogens. Spreading sewage sludge risks decades of environmental restorations to improve water quality.  Harmful chemicals, bacteria, and pathogens can be found in sewage and wastewater and breed disease, therefore, causing health-related issues in humans and animals alike. 

Industrial Waste is toxic chemicals and pollutants that are sometimes not regulated such as perchlorate and PFAS. Decades ago it was common practice for industrial waste to be dumped into waterways. When industrial waste is not treated properly it can easily pollute water. Some of the industries that released harmful chemicals and toxins include Aerospace, the Department of Defense, Phosphate Mining, and other industrial facilities.

Garbage lines our coastlines and negatively affects wildlife in numerous ways. They get tangled in fishing lines, suffocate on grocery bags, and ingest various plastics. Trash can also carry contaminates to our waterways including microplastics and PFAS from food packaging.

Homeowner Associations (HOAs) don't allow homeowners to replace irrigated, chemically dependent lawns with Florida-friendly landscaping. HOAs mandate lawns that require fertilizers and weed-killers that lead to water pollution. ​

 

Agricultural Runoff includes chemicals and pesticides. Nitrates are a common ingredient in fertilizer, and excess nutrients stunt aquatic plant growth and kill off fish. Algal blooms can create dead zones attributed to nitrogen fertilizer. 

Landfill Leakage is a source of household cleaners, battery acid, and other compounds that can lead to water pollution. 

Runoff from farms, cities, homes, and parking lots can contaminate water far downstream. Chemicals to kill weeds on lawns end up carried to our waterways when it rains. 

Did You Know?

  1. Manatees get 9-10 feet long and weigh around 1,000 pounds living up to 60 years. 

  2.  Manatees were hunted to near extinction in the 19th century. In 1893 there was a statewide hunting ban, and in 1967 they were added to the endangered species list. 

  3.  The manatee was removed from the list of endangered species back in 2017. 

  4.  Manatees have been traced in the fossil record to 50 million years ago. A common myth regarding manatees is they are an invasive species in Florida imported to control exotic aquatic plants. Florida manatees are in fact native to the United States and can be frequently found in Alabama, and Georgia. 

  5.  Not every non-native species are invasive. Manatees do not deplete the habitat of our native species. 

  6.  Manatee waste is natural and doesn't carry diseases like bacteria from human sewage and septic tanks. 

  7.  Manatees feed on a wide variety of submerged, emergent, floating, and shoreline vegetation. Manatees in Florida feed on more than 60 species of plants, including turtle grass, manatee grass, shoal grass, mangrove leaves, various algae, water hyacinth, acorns, and hydrilla.

  8.  Manatees don't eat seagrass from the root. They graze its top, and it grows taller in clean water. Similar to how cows graze grass. 

  9.  Seagrass has disappeared because of pollution. Scientists began to document the seagrass decline in the early 90s after cities spent decades dumping sewage directly into the water. 

  10.  Manatees face starvation, cold stress syndrome, accidents with boats, and invasive Plecos armored catfish that cling to their back, altering their behaviors and ability to rest. 

  11.  Developers took space for construction and destroyed springs and shorelines. Many use seawalls and piled rocks that reduce vegetation for manatees to eat. 

  12.  Thermal pollution has disrupted the manatee's natural migration patterns.

  13.  Manatees are perishing due to sewage spills, thermal pollution, overpopulation, chemical spraying, industrial dumping, etc. Deceased manatees are the symptom of decades of mismanagement of Florida's natural resources. 

Rampant Population Growth Affects Manatees

Thousands of people move to Florida every day and change the landscape of the sunshine state with a lot of development. The population growth leads to increased pollutants in water bodies and excess sewage issues. More pavement and homes mean less soil to filter water naturally. Soil purifies water as it soaks into the ground. Less ground also results in flooding and depleting the state's aquifer. 

Hard surfaces generate high runoff such as pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers that go from our lawns and into waterways where manatees live. To make matters worse, developers are filling in wetlands that protect against floods and storms and safeguard endangered species. They are known as the kidneys of our environment as they filter out 90% of the most common pollutants, such as nutrients. Filtering polluted water helps keep Florida water fishable and swimmable.

The population also drives water consumption, depleting our reservoirs. The more water we pull from our aquifers, the more saltwater intrusion occurs, lessening freshwater for manatees and us – and a reduction in springs that provide them with thermal refuge in the winter. Some Florida springs have dried up completely.

Poor Water Quality Costs Florida Taxpayers

The expense of pollution significantly impacts taxpayers. It affects property values, businesses, and even our health. It's the communities who ultimately pay for the cleanup of waterways, receive higher bills to treat water, spend money to protect aquatic species, and face revenue loss from recreational activities. 

 

For decades leaders have allowed population growth and pollution to wreak havoc on our delicate ecosystems. If the sources of pollution such as sewage, chemical spraying, industrial spilling, and waste are not addressed, other efforts to clean the water will be an endless and ineffective cycle. 

 

For instance, oysters cannot thrive in water that is continuously polluted. Muck will continue to build on the bottom of our water bodies, and transplanted seagrass will fail to survive. Recent endeavors add chemicals to our waterways to manage harmful algae with a slow-release formulation of algaecides to prevent blooms. Rather than covering up the symptoms, we should address the source of pollution.

Fight For Zero's Work 

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Photography Documentation by Stel Bailey & Jean Christy | Sand Point Park, Titusville, Florida 

Fight For Zero began noticing a decline in water quality in the Indian River Lagoon as the water turned pea soup green over the summer of 2020. The group held Demand Clean Water bridge marches in Titusville, Florida, to raise awareness in collaboration with organizations and groups across the state. In December 2020, the City of Titusville had a pipe break that spilled more than 7 million gallons of raw sewage. Advocates believe that the pipe leaked long before the main break was discovered. 

Soon after the pipe collapsed, the banks of Sand Point Park in Titusville were lined with deteriorating fish, wildlife carcasses, and signs that read, "recent contamination as a result of a sanity sewer force main break may have made this area unsafe to use." One month after the incident, advocates began getting reports of deceased manatees began washing ashore. Fight For Zero documented the environmental disaster as it unfolded. The sewage contributed to the decline in water quality and decades of these same types of spills destroyed food sources for the manatees.  

In March of 2021, a Usually Mortality Event (UME) for the Atlantic Florida Manatee was declared. Fight For Zero helped push for the UME through persistent advocacy, grassroots campaigns, partnering with organizations, involving stakeholders, and working with the local community to get national awareness.

Polluting the Public Conversation

Agency officials are scrambling to transport hundreds of carcasses from our waterways. Companies frequently seek positive media attention to keep the public from discussing their role in polluting the environment and waterways. Disinformation tactics shift the conversation and can usually be traced to special interests. 

Public Relations (PR) helps improve the company's "environmental image." They often aren't fully transparent with the public and create dysfunctional dialogue to distract people from the facts of the situation and block action on effective change. 

Companies known to harm the environment contribute a great deal of money to influence decisions made in Tallahassee. Grassroots groups that operate independently of any government play an essential role in ensuring accountability and transparency by documenting these environmental issues. Often environmentalists make officials and polluters nervous when they aren't telling the truth. Our waterways are polluted and cannot sustain life.

Be Informed Before Giving Money

Where is your money going when you give to an organization? Is a significant percentage going to salaries and fundraising, or does it directly go to the cause? Does the organization seem only to be present for media interviews and when an issue gains traction? Is the organization from your area, and if not, why are they invested in the problem? 

Choose a cause you care about and an organization that is transparent with their financials by listing them on their website, including their salaries. Nonprofit organizations that make under $50,000 are not required to list their financials outside of filing a 990 form. By listing their finances online anyway, it shows they are transparent and open with their donors on where their funds are going. 

Make sure that the organization you give to is legitimate. When environmental and other issues have a media presence, some imitators take advantage of the press coverage and use it as an opportunity to raise funds. They use disasters to exploit you and others who want to help.

How long has the organization been established, and what have they accomplished? For instance, if they are fighting for clean water and the quality has declined over time, you should be asking why, especially if they are a prominent organization receiving government funding. 

Always use caution and do your research when you're looking to donate. 

Be Cautious Signing Petitions

When asked to "sign" a petition, question what that petition is accomplishing? Is it an official document that will be delivered to a legislator, simply bringing awareness, or is it collecting your personal information with no concrete action? Legitimate petitions needing signatures to put amendments on a ballot require you to fill out a paper copy and mail it in—sites like Change.org are excellent for bringing awareness but have no citizen requirements. Legislators, executives, or administrators who are being lobbied by these petitions don't know if you are a registered voter in their district, signing multiple times, or signing for other people. These petitions are good to show that many people are behind something in a symbolic way. However, making an impact with them is difficult, and you'll often be bombarded with spam emails afterward. The best way to have your voice heard is to write your representative directly about issues that matter to you. Be cautious of signing petitions that seek to collect your information. 

Documents

Research

Join Our Networks & Allies

  1. Glyphosate effect on seagrasses: www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412021001185

  2. Chronic exposure to glyphosate in Florida manatee: Environmental International

  3. Food For Manatees

Additional Information

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