March Is Seagrass Awareness Month
Declining seagrass communities have directly contributed to unprecedented numbers of manatee mortalities in Florida, but there is hope for restoration
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE—March 1, 2023
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MAITLAND, FL—March is Seagrass Awareness Month, and there continues to be a critical need to restore and protect seagrass communities, which are an important food source for herbivorous manatees. The state’s manatee population has suffered three years of elevated mortality rates.
Seagrasses are an essential part of the marine ecosystem and provide food and habitat for myriad species. But, across the state, seagrasses are in peril. On the East Coast, ongoing human-caused harmful algal blooms (HABs) in the Indian River Lagoon have resulted in the loss of 95% of the Lagoon’s seagrass biomass. On the West Coast, a recent survey reported that Tampa Bay has lost 12% of its seagrass in recent years, in part as a result of similar, repeated HABs.
This loss has been felt acutely by herbivorous manatees, which co-evolved with seagrass communities. Lack of food in the region of the IRL has contributed to increased reports of malnourished manatees and years of unprecedented numbers of manatee mortalities. In 2022, there were a total number of 800 recorded manatee deaths in Florida on top of the record number of deaths recorded in 2021 of 1,100. The loss of so many manatees will have long-lasting adverse effects on the animals’ ability to grow and thrive.
“Many individuals are unaware that manatees and seagrass share a symbiotic relationship: manatees eat seagrass, while free-range manatee grazing increases seagrass productivity by encouraging new growth,” said Patrick Rose, Aquatic Biologist and Executive Director of the Save the Manatee Club. “Our seagrasses are a critical resource, but unfettered pollution from Florida’s growing human population has fed the cycle of algae blooms that cause seagrass loss and led to a heartbreaking number of manatee deaths over the past three years. There is still time to turn the situation around, but action must be taken immediately.”
Habitat restoration projects are underway throughout the state, and there have been some signs that seagrass communities may be rebounding in areas of the IRL. For its part, Save the Manatee Club has long worked with partners to rehabilitate and protect Florida’s waterways. Most recently, it partnered with the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife to file suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) for failing to revise outdated critical habitat for Florida manatees, which has not been updated since its original designation in 1976. As a result, it was announced in June that FWS had committed to revise critical habitat for the Florida manatee by 2024. In May 2022, the same three groups, together with Earth Justice, sued the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to protect manatees from water pollution in Florida. The case is pending.
Members of the public are encouraged to take action to protect seagrass and manatees by:
- Taking the pledge to be Fertilizer-Free For Manatees, thus helping to reduce pollution from yard chemicals, which prevent harmful algal blooms from forming;
- Calling on House Representatives to Vote NO on HB 359, which would remove many of the checks and balances that are crucial for effective long-term planning and natural resource protection, including aquatic manatee habitat;
- Preventing damage to seagrasses by avoiding boating over seagrass beds or trimming up the boat’s motor and idling to a safe depth before getting on plane;
- Reporting distressed, sick, injured, or dead manatees to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 1-888-404-FWCC (3922);
- Resisting the urge to feed or give water to manatees, which is illegal and can negatively impact their natural behavior;
- Contacting local, state, and federal elected officials to urge them to help manatees and restore the Indian River Lagoon.
Save the Manatee Club, established in 1981 by the late renowned singer-songwriter, author, and entrepreneur Jimmy Buffett, along with former Florida Governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham, is dedicated to safeguarding manatees and preserving their aquatic habitat. For more information about manatees and the Club’s efforts, visit savethemanatee.org or call 1-800-432-JOIN (5646).
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