Manatees Suffered Brutal Year

12/30/2016 09:20 pm ET Updated Dec 30, 2016

Florida’s state mammal, the gentle giant Manatees faced a horrific year in 2016.

Manatees, like their colossal land relatives, elephants, live to a ripe old age of 60 years. They grow over 12 feet in length, weighing almost one ton.

These sensitive, plant-eating marine mammals depend upon seagrasses and freshwater vegetation for their survival. Manatees’ teeth are all molars, especially adapted for grinding vegetation. When the molars wear down they fall out, soon replaced with new teeth.

Seagrasses are nature’s glorious underwater meadows. They provide crucial food and vital habitat for many sea creatures including Green sea turtles and the Manatees.

Florida’s seagrass meadows spread across 1,260 miles of coastline. They stabilize sediments and absorb nutrient runoff from the land, including agricultural poisons. When seagrass dies it floats ashore helping to create dunes. Dunes offer important habitat for Laughing gulls, Snowy plovers, crabs, insects, mollusks, beach mice and six-lined racerunner lizards.

Every plant, animal, fungus, bacteria and microbe is inexorably linked in nature. When damage or loss occurs to anything in nature, its effects are rippled throughout the web of life.

This June, torrential rainfall from Tropical Storm Colin flooded Florida, filling Lake Okeechobee to the brim. To alleviate the strain on the aged dike system, the Army Corps of Engineers released controlled discharges through locks, east and west of the lake to avert flooding in nearby towns. Those discharged waters were full of agricultural nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, pollutants, and blue-green algae that poured into rivers and lagoons, emptying into the Atlantic Ocean.

With Florida’s record July heat, the blue-green algae within the discharged Okeechobee waters quickly turned into putrid algal blooms. Those blooms smothered many miles of Floridian coastline causing beach closures on the Independence Day weekend.

It was Florida’s eighth massive, deadly algal bloom since 2004. This year, toxic algal sludge killed fish, shellfish, at least 8 manatees’ and anyone who touched it was sickened.

A warming world has increased the number of lethal algal blooms from eastern China to the entire westcoast of North America, along the coastline of Chile and elsewhere around the globe. Last year, those blooms were implicated in killing over 367 South American Sei and North American Humpback and Fin whales.

In addition to the algal bloom, this year, Manatees faced a record number of ship strikes resulting in 98 deaths.

On top of planning for sea level rise, Florida’s lawmakers are required to plan for heavier rainfall events in order to prevent more man-made deadly algal blooms. Speed restrictions on recreational motorboats travelling through Manatee habitat would easily reduce the reckless loss of life of these exquisite sea cows.

It is time to co-exist with nature by protecting seagrass meadows and all the splendid sea and land creatures.

A Manatee with scars from a motorboat strike.
Photo credit: David Schrichte
A Manatee with scars from a motorboat strike.

Earth Doctor Reese Halter’s upcoming book is “Save Nature Now.”

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