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  • Hedda Jarhall

Seagrass endangerment poses threat to South Florida manatees

Florida manatees are facing starvation and death as their main food source, seagrass, has faced a major decrease over the last few years.

In 2021, around 1100 manatees died, a record year for manatee deaths in Florida. This is nearly double the five-year average of manatee deaths.

Since then, manatees have continued to experience higher mortality rates compared to previous years. The primary cause for this surge in fatalities is attributed to starvation as the amount of seagrass has decreased.

Manatees rely heavenly on seagrass as their primary food source, consuming between 100 to 200 pounds of it each day. As seagrass performs photosynthesis, it holds sediments, produces oxygen and fixes carbon, which keeps the ocean clean.

Max Chesnes, an environmental journalist with the Tampa Bay Times, explained “When you have a lot of manatees in areas where there is no seagrass, manatees starve because they have no food source to replace seagrass. When it becomes cold and the manatees are already weak, they end up dying.”

Before joining the Tampa Bay Times, Chesnes worked as a reporter covering the environment on the east coast of Florida. In 2021, when the concerning rise in manatee deaths became apparent, Chesnes was involved in the government’s decision to feed manatees, which had never been done before.

Thomas Chesnes, a biology professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University and uncle to Max Chesnes, said that water quality is the main cause of seagrass loss. Poor water quality along Florida’s East Coast results from various factors including slots of nutrients from houses, golf courses and agriculture.

“We have seen some really substantial declines of seagrass. I have seen areas that were once very thick seagrass meadows that are now absent,” Thomas Chesnes said.

He further explained that the loss of seagrass disrupts the foundation of the ecosystem, causing a ripple effect leading to the starvation of all species reliant on seagrass for survival.

“It is definitely scary when you see this level of loss so quickly. I do not think the solution is to plant seagrass right now because it is not going to grow. The environment around it is not healthy enough for that,” Max Chesnes added.

He explained we must turn around the water quality and reduce pollutants before seagrass can be planted.

Anne Messer, the executive director at Friends of Manatee Lagoon, emphasized that Floridians can make a significant impact by minimizing or eliminating any type of fertilizing, helping with seagrass projects and getting educated about the importance of seagrass to the environment.

Friends of Manatee Lagoon is a nonprofit organization in Palm Beach County that mostly focuses on the safeguards and protections of manatees. Their mission is to educate the community about the challenges manatees counter.

“We need to protect our beautiful beaches and land, and to do that we have to keep our waters clean from pollution by being mindful and careful with what chemicals we put into the grounds as they go into our water system,” Messer said.

Messer said that Friends of Manatee Lagoon began exploring ways to safeguard seagrass last year. This initiative led to the establishment of a seagrass nursery, the installation of a seagrass aquarium and the creation of a seagrass wall featuring several varieties of seagrass.

Thomas noted that PBA has been actively engaged in scientific research and monitoring regarding seagrass on the coast since 2010.

“We are a coastal campus and what we do here affects what goes on right there in the water. We have to be aware of our location and address environmental issues,” Thomas Chesnes added.

Max Chesnes said the story of manatees dying is an example of what can happen when decades of pollution go unchecked. He urged humans to consider the plight of manatees as a warning signal, emphasizing the importance of caring for the natural ecosystem surrounding us.

“We should really pay attention to what is happening to these species so we can learn from it and prevent it from happening again,” Max Chesnes added.

By Hedda Jarhall

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