Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute directors are focusing on seagrass restoration to slow the decline of Florida’s manatee population.
As Florida’s manatees starve, researchers at FAU’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (HBOI) say one solution may be to simply grow more seagrass – so that’s exactly what they’re trying.
With a three-year fund from the Florida Power & Light Company (FPL) as well as funding from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, HBOI researchers hope to grow more seagrass and examine the causes of the loss.
At HBOI, researchers grew seagrass beds in reservoirs and transplanted them to the Indian River lagoon to help the declining seagrass population.
“We lost about seventy percent of all the grass in the whole lagoon, but in the northern lagoon there are good areas where there was a hundred percent loss,” said Dennis Hanisak, Director of the Harbor Branch Marine Ecosystem Health Program.
The health of the lagoon also impacts the economies of neighboring cities and counties. St. Lucie County Communications Director Erick Gill called the Indian River Lagoon a “big” part of the county’s economy.
In addition to this, the Indian River Lagoon is home to a wide range of organisms.
“It’s a living estuary,” Gill said of the lagoon. “It’s one of the most biodiverse estuaries in North America and it’s really where the tropics begin, and I think if you remove part of that ecosystem it will negatively impact a another kind.”
The researchers found that the loss of seagrass — the manatees’ favorite food source, according to Hanisak — is linked to a decline in the manatee population. However, this seagrass population decline is not just happening in Florida.
“What we’re seeing here is part of a global seagrass decline,” Dr Hanisak said, explaining that the suddenness of the 2011 loss of seagrass in the Indian River lagoon was what set the scene in motion. highlight this particular area.
Causes of seagrass loss include stormwater runoff and algal blooms, and Beth Alvi, policy director of a Miami-based advocacy group called Audubon Florida, suggested that improving the water quality could help seagrass restoration efforts succeed.
Hanisak explained that a small organism clouded the water, causing an unprecedented algal bloom in 2011. This algal bloom blocked light from reaching certain sea grasses.
“Seagrass has a very high light requirement…” he said. Without light, they cannot photosynthesize, which puts their survival at risk.
Through a feeding program in the Indian River lagoon, state employees from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission provided manatees with romaine lettuce to stave off starvation, according to Hanisak.
Giving manatees a temporary substitute has also happened in other parts of the state. “The majority, by far, of what we feed is romaine lettuce,” said Craig Miller, curator of manatee conservation at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens.
Others have acknowledged that romaine lettuce isn’t necessarily a long-term solution to manatee starvation.
“I’m glad to see something being done,” said Beth Alvi, policy director of a Miami-based advocacy group called Audubon Florida. “But it’s not something that can be done long term in because of the considerable amounts of what is needed.”
Despite the loss of seagrasses and its effects on our ecosystems, we can take steps to help.
“Holding yourself accountable for how much water you use, how you use it, how you dispose of your waste – all those types of things help make the place better,” Alvi said. .
Nathalie Vega is a writer for University Press. For more information on this article or others, you can reach Nathalie at [email protected]