Seagrass loss isn’t a phenomenon most people are concerned about. However, with 72 species evolving nearly 100 million years ago, it’s one of the most productive ecosystems on earth with several ecological benefits.
For instance, seagrass helps prevent erosion along coastlines prone to hurricanes and other extreme weather events. They’re also natural filters, removing harmful nutrients and sediments from runoff as they enter coastal waters.
Perhaps most important, seagrass resembles an underwater meadow, serving as a habitat and food source for aquatic and endangered species, including the manatee.
Seagrass Loss Leads to Dwindling Manatee Populations
It should come as little surprise that human exploitation is the direct cause for over 500 extinctions of the 142,500 species listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.
Most of Florida’s manatees meet a harrowing fate in the Indian River Lagoon, where amplified nutrient loading from Lake Okeechobee discharge and toxic blue-green algal blooms have eradicated 96% of seagrass beds.
Manatees migrate to warmer inland waters during the winter for shelter and food. However, seagrass loss has placed their populations at high malnutrition and mortality risk. Nearly 1,100 manatees starved to death in the state in 2021, the most since the 2013 record of 830 deaths.
In addition to agricultural and industrial runoff, rapid land development and derelict enforcement of water quality policies exacerbate seagrass die-off across the state and along its coastlines.
As Florida’s population increases — the U.S. Census Bureau ranked Florida as second in the nation for the highest population growth of 211,196 residents in 2021 — preventing seagrass loss to protect manatees has become ever more critical.
4 Ways to Protect Seagrass Ecosystems and Manatee Populations
Whether people live in Florida, are visiting the state or are concerned about manatees and seagrass loss, there are a few ways to help.
Decreasing the amount of pollution generated, whether chemical or plastic, can help protect Florida waterways from algal blooms, control seagrass die-off and safeguard manatees.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) biologist Brandon Bassett says one in 10 manatee carcasses contains plastic debris. In fact, he can recall one manatee that died from ingesting a 3-foot ball of plastic bags the size of a cantaloupe, with a smaller ball of plastic found in its intestines.
Typically, multilayer plastics are nonrecyclable and clog up recycling systems, often finding their way to the natural environment where they pose a danger to wildlife. Opting for packaging-free goods and cutting out waste is one way to prevent polluting manatee habitats.
Landscaping without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is also essential, as many chemicals enter the water through runoff. Florida residents can contact their local University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Extension Office for more information regarding native plants, lawn care, soil testing and fertilization.
A 10-year study conducted by the FWC found that boat collisions account for 20%-25% of manatee fatalities — more than any other marine mammal.
In another study, boat traffic and mooring led to a 58% depletion in underwater vegetation, cutting and thinning seagrass density.
Following safe recreational boating practices, such as steering clear of seagrass beds and manatee habitats, is best. Trimming the motor and idling to deeper waters will also prevent habitat loss if it’s impossible to avoid seagrass.
Despite the FWC recently voting to feed Florida’s manatees — a trial initiative deemed unprecedented to boost the species’ chances of survival — it’s illegal to provide manatees with food or fresh water.
Naturally, the FWC is concerned with how their decision could affect public disregard for the law — in which a conviction might result in a $500 state fine and a 60-day prison sentence. On the federal level, feeding endangered species could accrue $100,000 in fines and a one-year sentence.
Human interactions with manatees, such as feeding, might lead them to associate people and boats as food sources, putting them at risk of further collisions and death.
Locals might decide to volunteer their time during cleanup events to protect the manatee and prevent seagrass loss. Several statewide manatee conservation organizations maintain calendars of events people can sign up for.
Staying informed and donating money and essential resources to protect Florida’s wildlife are effective ways to get involved in preserving the natural environment.
Preserving Seagrass Ensures Healthier Aquatic Life
The good news is that seagrass loss and manatee fatalities are preventable when people are more ecologically aware of their behaviors. Protecting seagrass beds ensures a robust ecosystem and food source for manatees and other aquatic species.