MANATEE MORTALITY

THE ISSUE: Legislator wants manatees put back on the endangered list.

OUR OPINION: Let’s fix the real problem leading to manatee deaths.

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Four years ago, federal wildlife officials reclassified manatees from endangered to threatened. At the time, manatee advocates opposed the reclassification, contending manatee survival was still fragile. U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, is now calling for a reversal of the decision, citing that a staggering 761 manatees have already died this year, and that the state is on course to exceed the previous record 804 deaths in 2018.

In a letter to Martha Williams, principal deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Buchanan wrote, “Manatees are beloved, iconic mammals in Florida, and we should be doing everything in our power to protect them and ensure their continued survival.”

He’s right, but changing the classification status of the manatee doesn’t really address the core problem: We are not doing enough to protect manatee habitats and their food source. Changing a label will not change the problem. We must change peoples’ behavior that creates the problem.

The two major threats to manatees are the loss of habitat and collisions with boats. Algae blooms (red tide), fueled by sewage and fertilizer runoff, are toxic to manatees. Pollution is killing off eelgrass beds. Until the state successfully addresses the pollution of waterways, manatee safety will continually be threatened.

Citrus County is taking the lead in addressing manatee mortality. More law enforcement on local waterways is driving home safety for boaters. The septic-to-sewer project aims to reduce the number of septic tanks polluting waterways. Save Crystal River is successfully tackling the Lyngbya invasion and restoring eelgrass beds — which are crucial to manatee survival — in King’s Bay. The Homosassa River Restoration Project is doing the same for the Homosassa River. Both organizations have rallied community support to restore the waterways to their natural state, and they raise money to support the projects.

Citrus has established how to react to the problem; other areas of the state should follow its lead.

Lawmakers need to start seriously addressing the issue of dumping pollution into state waterways; maybe with their influence, the state can get some federal assistance. For example, as recently as April, a leaking reservoir at Piney Point, a former phosphate plant in Manatee County, nearly reached a catastrophic situation.

While reclassification of the manatee might communicate urgency, taking action is what really is needed to solve the problem.