Manatees Are Dying Off, and Florida Is Determined to Speed it Up

Who hates manatees? Sea cows, mermaids, whatever you want to call them—these massive, slow, people-loving warm-water swimmers are naturally adorable and devoid of natural enemies. But hundreds have died already this year, and deregulating Florida lawmakers could doom the rest today.

On the last day of its annual session, the state Legislature is expected to pass HB 999, a bill that would bar local and county governments from setting their own standards for water quality and wetlands construction—assuming those standards are higher than the state's relatively lax requirements, that is.

The proposed law would also severely limit "testing, sampling, collection, or analysis" of state waters. And it would make about two dozen existing regional water districts "exempt from further wetlands or water quality regulations." One of its key sponsors, Rep. Jimmy Patronis, is the state chairman for the conservative, pro-business American Legislative Exchange Council, and his family owns a swath of Northwest Florida that it pimps out for water-bottling and clear-cutting.

The bill could obliterate the already-threatened Florida manatee, which subsists on quickly disappearing river grasses. In fact, 582 of the burly mammals have died so far in 2013—as much as 19 percent of the entire adult population—thanks to a shrinking supply of food and the proliferation of deadly algae blooms like red tide in state waters.

Collisions with speedboats have long been the No. 1 killer of manatees, but environmental factors are quickly moving up the list. River grass, the manatee's main source of chow, is being strangled by human encroachment. Dangerous algae blooms, which cut off oxygen and can release paralyzing neurotoxins, thrive where the waste products of development leach into rivers and lakes, says Eric Draper, the executive director of Audubon Florida.

"One of the major causes is fertilizer—from farm fields, from landscaping—as well as urban runoff, sewage, and septic tanks," he says. HB 999 essentially "puts a moratorium on local government regulations on fertilizers," leaving officials with statewide standards. [UPDATE: The fertilizer moratorium was stripped from the bill Thursday afternoon after a few legislators intervened, though HB 999's other local limits would stand.]

"The state of Florida does a crummy job" in setting those standards, Draper says, at least in part because it doesn't want to slow down economic growth on undeveloped state land. Look at the state regions where this bill will hit hardest, he says: "They're developing housing projects out there." And they're screwing sea cows in the process.

[h/t Take Part; Image via AP]