Seagrass is essential to the health of Florida’s estuaries, waterways and marine life

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

“Since 2012, runoff fed algae blooms have harmed seagrass in the Panhandle, Big Bend, southwest Florida, and along the east coast from Biscayne Bay,” the Florida Today newspaper reported recently.

According to Dr. Roland Samimy, Key Biscayne's Chief Resilience Officer, red tides are “an accumulation of a type of microscopic organism called dinoflagellate” that causes algae blooms that can sicken humans and be fatal to marine animal and plant life.

Samimy used the term 'eutrophication' when explaining one of the causes of red tide. Excessive nutrients in a body of water, frequently caused by runoff from land, causes a dense growth of plant life and, subsequently, the death of animal life from lack of oxygen.

Florida’s waterways can not support marine life without seagrass. It is essential to the health of Florida’s waterways because it filters impurities, stabilizes the sandy bottom, and provides habitat for small fish, shrimp, and crabs. It also feeds manatees.

However, seagrass is being choked out by the red tide.

Florida Bay, as well as 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.

“So far we have not seen any evidence of red tide,” said Suzy Pappas with Coastal Cleanup Corp., a non-profit dedicated to restoring the sea turtle nesting habitat on Elliot Key. Representatives of the group traveled to the area as recently as a week ago.

This past winter, struggling to find enough seagrass to eat, manatees huddled in the shallow lagoons of Central and South Florida for warmth and literally had to choose between dying of cold stress or dying of starvation.

And what caused all this? Over-enrichment from water run-off plays a big part, according to Samimy. “It is coming from a number of sources, such as storm water, septic tanks and sewer lines, as well as fertilizer,” he said, adding that many other factors -- such as seasonal temperatures extremes -- cause algae blooms.

“The only way to make the seagrass come back is to vanquish the poor water quality that killed it in the first place,” said Leesa Souto, executive director of the Marine Resources Council in Palm Bay.

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 cleanup, all in the name of saving those dying manatees.

Manatees are not the only animals impacted by red tides and the loss of seagrass. The nursery habitat of a vast array of marine life, such as shrimp, crabs and fish, also rely on it as a food source, a refuge, and nursery, according to NOAA.


Portions of 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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