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Florida wildlife officials seek millions in funding as state deals with manatee deaths

Miami Herald

TALLAHASSEE --- State wildlife officials are seeking nearly $7 million from lawmakers as they scramble to address a record year of manatee deaths in Florida’s degraded waters.

Gil McRae, director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, said Wednesday the request for money is also part of long-term goals to rebuild seagrass beds and wean manatees from artificial warm-water sites, including areas near power plants, that attract the sea cows in winter months.

The state is approaching 1,000 manatee deaths this year, from a population estimated around 8,800, with a large number of the deaths linked to poor water quality along the East Coast.

The main cause of the deaths has been starvation, as seagrass beds that are prime foraging areas for manatees in the Indian River Lagoon have declined because of repeated algae blooms over the past decade. The state estimates that 58 percent of the seagrasses have been lost in the northern Indian River Lagoon.

“We know we're likely going to have a challenge with this particular issue in the Indian River Lagoon for a number of years,” McRae said.

Lawmakers will consider the request for money during the 2022 legislative session, which will start in January. The current budget includes $8 million to improve manatee habitat and access to Florida’s natural springs. The commission has five years to use the money.

Efforts to restore aquatic vegetation are underway near springs along the St. Johns River and at Blue Spring State Park.

Speaking to the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee, McRae praised the direction of $53 million into 13 water-quality improvement projects announced last month by Gov. Ron DeSantis. The projects include eliminating more than 3,000 septic tanks and upgrading three wastewater treatment facilities.

“Its main goal is to reduce that nitrogen loading into the (Indian River) lagoon,” McRae said. “That's the real water quality issue that needs to be addressed.”

McRae noted that if the state can “get the water quality right” in areas with some seagrasses, the beds “will come back on their own because that's what they do.”

In the new funding request, the commission is asking for $3 million to restore and enhance lakes, rivers, springs and estuarine habitats and $2.95 million to expand the Manatee Critical Care Network. Another $717,767 is being sought to increase manatee-rescue efforts, a request that includes two full-time positions.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried recently asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list threatened manatees as “endangered,” describing as “misguided” a March 2017 decision to reclassify manatees as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Fried, a Democratic candidate for governor in 2022, said manatees continue to face the same perils as when they were previously listed as endangered: degradation of habitat, growing impacts of climate change, pollution, speeding boats, seagrass loss and declining water quality.

The federal agency in 2017 pointed to an increase in the manatee population and habitat improvements because of conservation efforts by Florida, Puerto Rico, Caribbean nations and public and private organizations. Until that time, manatees had been listed as endangered for a half century.

Jim Turner / News Service of Florida
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