Eric Sutton, director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, views seagrass killed during the red tide bloom.

An adult manatee needs to chow down on 100 to 200 pounds of seagrass every day to keep on swimming and splashing; as of July 23, state wildlife commission records show Florida has lost at least 881 manatees this year, more than the record of 830 set in 2003... and we’ve got nearly five more months to go.

The news reports around St. Petersburg have been greatly concerned with weights and measures recently. It’s an effort to quantify the horror of the ongoing red tide algae bloom by recounting the staggering amount of the sea life that has turned up dead: 500 tons! Three million pounds! 1,711 tons!

After seeing enough of these reports, my curiosity got the better of me, so I called Kelli Hammer Levy, the director of the county’s public works department. All through a 2018 bloom, she projected an air of calm competence, a reassuring attitude when facing a tsunami of dead fish and fleeing tourists.

At my request, she listed some of the species of marine life that her cleanup crews had found dead. They’d seen quite a lot — massive goliath grouper, for instance, and sea robins, a bottom-dweller with pectoral fins that resemble wings.

Then she mentioned seagrass, and I said, “Wait, what?”

“We’re pulling tons of floating seagrass out of the water,” Levy told me. “I mean tons. It’s very disappointing.”

The red tide algae bloom has been lingering along the state’s Gulf Coast since December, but it hit the Tampa Bay area during the seagrass’ growing season, she explained. The grasses the crews have been pulling out of the water look fine, other than being dead.

You know how people say, “I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news”? Well, this is like that except the good news is bad too. We need healthy seagrass — the kind that’s still alive, that is.

When I was a kid growing up in the Florida Panhandle, I didn’t appreciate seagrass. In fact, I hated it.

Whenever I encountered a few tendrils of seagrass while splashing around at the beach, I always thought the stuff was creepy.

Now, of course, I realize seagrass is not creepy at all. It’s essential to the continued health of our Gulf, estuaries, and other waterways. It filters impurities, stabilizes the sandy bottom, and provides habitat for small fish, shrimp, and crabs. It also feeds manatees.

Florida can’t get by without our seagrass.

Florida has nearly 2.5 million acres of seagrass beds, more than any other state. The seagrass in Florida Bay down at the state’s southern tip, and in the Big Bend area from Tarpon Springs north to Apalachee Bay, “are two of the most extensive seagrass beds in continental North America,” according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s website.

But, right now, an awful lot of Florida’s seagrasses is being mowed down (so to speak) by us humans.

“Since 2012, runoff fed algae blooms that harmed seagrass in the Panhandle, Big Bend, southwest Florida, and along the east coast from Biscayne Bay to the northern Indian River Lagoon,” Florida Today reported recently.

It’s hard to say exactly how much has been lost, according to Brad Furman, the research scientist who oversees seagrass studies at the Florida Wildlife Research Institute, the state’s marine science lab.

Furman said the agency puts out a statewide study — the Seagrass Integrated Mapping and Monitoring report, or SIMM for short. He said the most recent SIMM report came out in 2016.

“We’re still trying to secure funding to keep that going,” he said.

Choose how you die

There’s one place in Florida where we have a pretty good idea how much seagrass has been wiped out: the Indian River Lagoon.

Once regarded as North America’s most productive estuary, the Indian River Lagoon once had 79,000 acres of seagrass beds that helped it achieve that reputation. Over the last 10 years, it’s lost 95 percent, according to Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club.

Bear in mind that an adult manatee needs to chow down on 100 to 200 pounds of seagrass every day to keep on swimming and splashing and doing those barrel rolls every tourist loves.

This past winter, when manatees huddled in the shallow lagoon for warmth, they couldn’t locate enough seagrass nearby to eat, Rose explained. To find food they had to travel outside the area that kept them warm.

“They literally had to choose between dying of cold stress or dying of starvation,” Rose said.

As of July 23, state wildlife commission records show Florida has lost at least 881 of its manatees this year, well beyond the previous record of 830 set in 2003. And we’ve got nearly five more months to go.

Many manatees died of malnutrition because they had no seagrass to eat. The way things are going, Rose said, he fears next winter will bring a repeat of the 2020-21 mass die-off.

And what caused this cascade of catastrophes? “We’re dealing with an excess of nutrient loading,” Rose said, blaming leaking septic tanks and sewer lines, as well as clueless homeowners putting too much fertilizer on their lawns.

The nutrients (which also flow from farmers’ fields) fueled algae blooms that were deadly for the seagrass — shading them out so they could get no sun, among other attacks. Rose warned that the way things are going in the lagoon, it may have reached a tipping point where most of the seagrass has disappeared forever, supplanted by algae ad infinitum.

My next call was to Leesa Souto, executive director of the Marine Resources Council in Palm Bay, an environmental group trying to restore the fish and wildlife resources of the lagoon.

When I asked what could fix the lagoon after such a dramatic loss, she gave me a two-word answer: “Clean water.”

The only way to make the seagrass come back, she contended, is to vanquish the poor water quality that killed it in the first place.

The fact that the lagoon’s seagrass died in such large quantities is a sign of what a poor job state officials have done at keeping the lagoon clean, she contended. The DEP and water management districts set “Total Maximum Daily Load” totals — TMDLs for short — for the amount of pollution allowed to flow into the lagoon. Then the state issues permits to polluters based on the TMDL numbers, regardless of what’s going on with the seagrass.

“That’s all they care about,” she said. “I don’t know what they think they’re doing with those TMDLs. Those TMDLs are not going to do enough to protect the habitat of the manatees.”

She’d like to see the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service join forces to push for a full lagoon cleanup, all in the name of saving those dying manatees.

This report first appeared on the website of the Florida Phoenix, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to coverage of state government and politics from Tallahassee.


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