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Amid some milestones for environmental restoration, a tough year for Florida’s imperiled manatees

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The vast majority of manatee deaths have been in the Indian River Lagoon, a biologically diverse east coast estuary that has been plagued with water quality problems and widespread seagrass losses. Photo courtesy the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

The hugely complex plan to restore the Everglades made progress in 2021, but Florida’s environment and wildlife faced some big challenges too. Environmental managers are now taking drastic steps to try and stop manatees dying off in massive numbers. WMFE environmental reporter Amy Green joins Intersection to discuss the highlights from 2021.  

“The wildlife agencies say they are going to provide romaine lettuce for the manatees,” says Green.

“And this is not a decision the wildlife agencies take lightly. This is a very serious and a very significant step that the wildlife agencies are taking in response to a record die off this year of manatees in Florida.”

Green says more than 1,000 manatees have died so far this year, with the epicenter in the Indian River lagoon. Poor water quality has led to the loss of seagrass, which is the manatees’ main source of food.

“I think many of the advocates would say, usually the last thing you want is for a wild animal to be dependent on humans for food,” she says, adding that feeding manatees without a permit is still illegal.

“This is a very unusual step and a very unusual response to a serious problem.”

Green says there have been some milestones for Florida’s environment in 2021. One was the completion of a project to restore the historic path of the Kissimmee River, which feeds into Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.

“What they did was basically restore those historic meanders of the Kissimmee River. And the goal is to improve water quality, both in the Kissimmee River and in Lake Okeechobee.”

Green’s reporting in 2021 also covered the complex science and policy of methane emissions from landfills, and an examination of Gov. Ron DeSantis’s environmental record. 

And an apparent success story for the endangered grasshopper sparrow, which is doing well, according to researchers who have been releasing birds raised in captivity back into the wild.

“Nobody knew whether the sparrows would know how to breed in the wild and feed themselves and they’ve figured it out. And they’re thriving. And the wildlife agencies say that population now is beginning to stabilize, which is great news.”

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About Matthew Peddie

Matt Peddie