Feature Story

Florida manatees can’t catch a break.

2021 has been especially tough for this iconic species in the Sunshine State. More manatees have died this year than ever recorded over a six-month period, prompting federal wildlife officials to declare an "unusual mortality event." This year, a majority of the deaths link back to insufficient food — exacerbated by the decline of Florida seagrass. Put bluntly: the manatees are starving to death.  

The varied and complicated threats facing manatees are the same threats facing Florida's waterways and those who depend on them.  By saving the manatees, we can save ourselves. 

Read more in this feature story, which was selected as a finalist in the 2021 ArcGIS StoryMaps Challenge for Restoring Our Ocean. 

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To pair with the rest of our educational content in each Earth to Florida newsletter, we bring you monthly updates on statewide environmental news. Read below to see what we found for December: 
  • The British biotechnology company Oxitec and the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District have reached a new stage in a project to wipe out the invasive Aedes aegypti mosquito. Oxitec released 130 boxes of genetically modified male mosquito larvae in several locations throughout the Keys. The male mosquitos have a “death mechanism” meaning when they mate, there will be no viable female offspring. After mating, the male mosquitoes should pass on a “self-limiting gene” that should cause the number of mosquitoes to dwindle. The project will be monitored until February.
  • Nutrient pollution in Miami’s Biscayne Bay has led to algae blooms and killed more than 20 square miles of seagrass in the past decade. In November, Biscayne Bay was left out when the Florida Department of Environmental Protection gave nearly half a billion dollars to communities around the state to clean up water problems. This is because the Bay does not currently have any pollution limits – which was a stipulation for receiving the funds. Irela Bague, Miami-Dade County’s chief bay officer says a permanent advisory board is currently working together to set pollution limits that satisfy both community and business interests.
  • Earlier this year, Florida lawmakers nixed a proposed toll road in South Florida. But plans to extend Florida’s turnpike north into rural counties near the state’s Big Bend are moving ahead. The No Roads to Ruin Coalition, a toll road opposition group, says the extension is unnecessary and would threaten some of Florida’s remaining rural lands, iconic wildlife and pristine waterways. Another public information session on the plan is scheduled for next summer.
  • Advocates from the Florida Turtle Conservation Trust say a new executive order by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission makes the threatened gopher tortoise more vulnerable to development. The order waves a rule that prohibits relocating the species more than 100 miles to the north or south, which is meant to prevent isolated turtle populations. Gopher tortoises are considered a keystone species because they dig deep extensive burrows in the ground that are used by over 365 other animal species.
  • First introduced through the exotic pet trade, the invasive Argentine black and white tegu population in Florida has been growing rapidly. In 2019, 1,425 tegus were captured throughout the state, more than double the number trapped in 2015. The huge lizards will eat just about anything, and several have been documented eating hatchlings of the threatened gopher tortoise. Tegus also thrive in cold weather, meaning they could survive as far north as Alabama. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission plans to meet soon to address the problem.
  • As manatees make their annual journeys toward inland waterways this winter to escape cold ocean temperatures, federal and state wildlife agencies have decided to hand feed these imperiled gentle giants. More than 1,000 manatees have died this year, an unusual decline attributed to starvation and diminishing seagrass. One of these warm water refuges, a power plant site near Cape Canaveral, will be the focus of this effort. The Save the Manatee Club, an influential conservation organization, has voiced its support for this emergency measure but emphasizes that it is still illegal for individuals to feed manatees. Meanwhile, in South Florida, tensions are high between organizers of the 2022 Miami Boat Show and those who say preparations for the event will disturb manatee protection areas.
  • Critically endangered North Atlantic right whales are calving near Florida’s coast this winter, so boaters are encouraged to take precautions to avoid a collision with these hard-to-spot creatures. With their population estimated at less than 350 individuals, researchers in South Carolina were elated when they confirmed that a right whale finally gave birth off the Atlantic coast. These mammals are threatened by entanglements, boat strikes, climate change and more.
  • After a 215-million-gallon wastewater leak at the Piney Point facility in Manatee County this summer, environmental organizations across Florida banded together to sue the state and others involved in the breach. Now, the defendants are seeking to dismiss the case, stating that they are already working to solve problems. Currently proposed solutions include pumping the contaminated wastewater deep underground. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is close to issuing a permit to allow this measure but faces objections from environmental organizations who say the pumping could contaminate the aquifer.
  • Florida is set to receive more than $33 million as a settlement for the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The funds will be put toward the acquisition and management of 32,000 acres of wetland and floodplain habitat in Apalachicola. The project aims to improve freshwater and nutrient flow to Apalachicola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. $356 million more dollars are expected to be allocated in the future.
  • A new report from the Environment Florida Research & Policy Center has named Florida third in the United States for cumulative electric vehicle sales through 2020. Florida has over 77,000 electric vehicles on the road and more than 5,600 charging ports. Though electric cars were once a fringe idea, today several automakers have plans to cease production of gas and diesel-fueled cars within the next two decades. In the U.S., a recent poll found that more than 50% of U.S. voters support requiring new cars to be electric within just a decade, and more than 50 power companies plan to build a coast to coast fast-charging network for electric vehicles by the end of 2023.
  • Citrus greening, a disease that has decimated citrus groves in central and south Florida has been confirmed for the first time in north Florida. According to the USDA, this year Florida citrus growers will produce 11% fewer boxes of oranges than last year.
  • As cities across Florida look to lower greenhouse gas emissions, new state laws have blocked municipalities from doing so, according to a report by the Miami Herald. The laws are part of a national trend of gas-industry-supported laws aimed at deterring cities from cutting down on their emissions. So far, 19 states have passed similar laws and five more are in the works.
Visit the links below for other environmental stories you may have missed this month!
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Action of the Month:
Reduce Waste During the Holidays

The period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day can be one of the most wasteful times in the U.S. 

But by slowing down and thinking carefully about our choices, we can all contribute to reducing holiday-related waste. In this Action of the Month, the UF Office of Sustainability shares some of the helpful tips and tricks they’ve found for reducing waste and hosting eco-conscious celebrations this holiday season. 

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Earth to Florida's Action of the Month is produced in collaboration with the UF Office of Sustainability. If you’d like to learn more about sustainability at UF, follow Sustainable UF on Instagram or Facebook!
Like our Action of the Month column? Visit our Instagram page for weekly actions you can take for the betterment of the planet. 

Feature Video:
Butterfly Migration in Florida

Why do roughly 200 species migrate through the Sunshine State? Learn more in our video: Butterfly Migration in Florida.

Learn more about Earth systems-related topics through our other student-produced educational videos!

What We're Reading

Environmental protection and social justice are deeply intertwined, and we cannot accurately communicate the environmental issues facing our state without acknowledging this relationship. In this monthly Earth to Florida segment, we will share articles and videos that help explain these connections.

Tell Me About

Tell Me About is a weekly series on TESI's Instagram channel that explains environmental topics facing Florida and why they matter. Click the images below to learn more about citrus greening and sargassum blooms in Florida. 
Visit our blog posts below to learn more about these topics!
Learn more about Earth systems-related topics through our other student-produced educational videos! (Great for classrooms!)

What's the Word?

When reading environmental news, you may hear a lot of buzzwords. Our What's the Word Instagram series helps define terms you may come across while reading stories. Click the images below to learn more! 

Know Your Florida

Want to impress your friends with all you know about our beautiful state? Follow us on Instagram @KnowYourFlorida and get to know your state’s natural history and outdoor wonders. Click the images below for fun Florida facts for this month!


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About the Institute

Started in 2018, the mission of the UF Thompson Earth Systems Institute is to advance communication and education about Earth systems science in a way that inspires Floridians to be effective stewards of our planet. 
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About Earth to Florida

Each month, a student-led team at the UF Thompson Earth Systems Institute curates Florida's environmental news and puts it into context by explaining what’s going on, why it matters and what we can do about it. We hope you enjoy this month's sampling.

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