At first glance, the sea-foam-green billboard looks like a postcard: “Welcome to Florida,” it says. “Home to bears, toxic waters, dead manatees.”
A dead manatee — at the center of the illustration — floats on top of a sea of muddy water. At the right corner, a pipe sprays out dirty water from a toilet. A gravestone nearby reads; “RIP 1,874 manatees 2021-2022.”
The billboard, one of two located on I-95 near the Treasure Coast, is part of environmental group Bear Warriors United’s campaign to inform Floridians — and visitors to the state — about waste that is decimating manatee populations in the state’s waterways, executive director Katrina Shadix told the Miami Herald.
At least 800 manatees died across Florida in 2022, with many perishing due to starvation and malnutrition, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission data. In 2021, about 1,100 manatees died, a record-breaking increase linked to pollution-fueled seagrass loss in the Indian River Lagoon.
To Shadix, the message behind the billboard is simple: Human sewage waste is polluting Florida’s waters and killing its manatees.
“Our elected officials really don’t want tourists or potential people moving here knowing that our waters are polluted with human sewage,” she told the Miami Herald. “That’s not a good look for our state.”
In November, Bear Warriors United sued the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, alleging that the agency violated the Endangered Species Act by allowing septic tank and wastewater treatment plant discharge to pollute Indian River Lagoon. The waste, the lawsuit says, has added nitrogen to the water, starving and killing manatees, which are a protected species.
The environmental organization is demanding that the state stops issuing septic tanks and wastewater plants permits to dump waste in the lagoon and provides the manatees with medical monitoring and veterinarian care until there is sufficient seagrass for them to sustain themselves.
“Our lawsuit is just demanding that they act quicker to clean up our waters because the local population of manatees will go extinct in about two to three years if the river can’t be cleaned up,” Shadix said.
The billboards, Shadix said, are at the I-95 exit in Titusville, where thousands of tourists go each year to see rockets launch from the Kennedy Space Center. Indian River Lagoon is also located nearby.
The group plans to put up more billboards in Central Florida and along I-4 near heavy-traffic areas due to Orlando’s theme parks. Organizers also hope to get one placed in Tallahassee for state legislators to see on their commutes to work.
“If it takes a few thousand dollars and a couple billboards to help clean up our environment, clean up our waters and save our wildlife, every single cent we pay... is worth it,” Shadix said.
Shadix praised the millions that Gov. Ron DeSantis has dedicated to clean water initiatives but said they’re “just a drop in the bucket.” She hopes the billboards influence lawmakers to invest in water cleaning programs, septic-to-sewer conversions and new technology that can reduce phosphorus and nitrogen concentrations in waterways.
“I’m standing on the side of right and on the side of environmental and wildlife justice,” she said. “I’m good with fighting for the future of our environment and wildlife, so our kids can enjoy [it], the way that I got to when I was little. It’s about leaving the planet in a better place than when you found it.”