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A proposed bill could negatively affect Florida's manatee population

Manatee laying on a canvas tarp on land
Tim Donovan
FWC, used with permission
Manatee receiving rehabilitation care before being released

Anyone responsible for development or construction that leads to an environmental impact must get an environmental resource permit. House Bill 349 and Senate Bill 198 would require those permit holders to purchase mitigation credits if their development leads to the destruction of seagrass, in a practice known as mitigation banking. These credits would go toward the restoration of seagrass in other areas. Representative Tyler Sirois (R-Merritt Island) says the idea is to cancel out any seagrass losses from the construction and potentially bring more dollars into helping protect manatees.

“Because Florida’s submerged lands are critical to our state’s ecosystem, this bill authorizes the Internal Improvement Trust Fund Board to apply the practice of mitigation banking to seagrass projects,” Sirois said when introducing the bill to a House subcommittee.

Seagrass is an important aspect of Florida’s marine ecosystem, and it is the main forage for Florida’s manatee population. Lindsay Cross with Florida Conservation Voters spoke in opposition to the bill in front of the same subcommittee, “Statewide we have seen alarming trends in seagrass losses in recent years due to dirty, polluted water and algae blooms.”

Last year, the state hit a record when scientists reported more than 1,000 manatees had died, many from starvation.

Environmentalists are concerned that this legislation does not stop the root cause of seagrass loss and are skeptical of mitigation banking.

“Seagrass is one of the most costly and difficult habitats to restore, particularly because the water quality has to be good,” said Cross. “If you attempt to plant seagrass in a place that doesn’t have adequate water quality, that grass will not survive, and your investment will go down the tubes.”

The Save the Manatee Club is a nonprofit organization founded in 1981, whose goal is to protect manatees and their habitat. Kimberleigh Dinkins, the organization’s Senior Conservation Associate, says that “Manatees aren’t the canary in the coal mine, they are basically the last step before an entire collapse of an ecosystem.” Dinkins also said that seagrass mitigation banking is successful less than 30% of the time.

After speaking with environmentalists and stakeholders, Rep. Sirois believes the bill will ensure that the mitigation process is taken seriously.

“The bill requires the Department of Environmental Protection to adopt rules to make sure mitigation banking commitments are financially sound and sufficient to provide for the long term management of the project.”

The measure has two committee stops left in both the House and Senate.

Follow @bgrutherford99

Brett Rutherford is a reporter and news researcher at WFSU Pubic Media. From Riverview, Florida, he has earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Florida State University. During his time at Florida State, he was a reporter within the sports department at WVFS, the student-run on-campus radio station. In 2020, he served as Sports Director during his senior year and hosted the weekly talk show Tomahawk Talk.

Email Brett: brutherford2@fsu.edu