By The Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board
This week’s frigid snap had many Floridians worried about the fate of cold-stressed and starving manatees that are already dying in record numbers.
The concern is justified. Last year, more than 1,100 manatees died — more than double the toll of the next-worst year on record — with many showing clear signs of starvation. Scientists are pulling more emaciated and possibly doomed manatees from the water on a daily basis. And there’s more at stake than the survival of one beloved species: Throughout the Indian River Lagoon system, seagrass beds are vanishing, and those same beds that feed manatees also provide critical spawning grounds for fish, shrimp and other marine species that contribute to the lagoon’s reputation as one of the most biologically diverse estuaries in the United States.
A treasure is being poisoned to death, right before our eyes. And Florida leaders had been warned, time and again, that this was likely to happen.
The immediate concern is to save as many manatees as possible. As the Sentinel’s Kevin Spear reported last week, attempts to supplement manatees’ diets with romaine lettuce at a Florida Power & Light Co. power plant near Titusville aren’t going as well as state officials had hoped. Re-evaluating that plan — and possibly moving the feeding site to the warmer waters manatees favor — should be considered now before more manatees become too weak to have a reasonable shot at recovery. State and federal officials should also consider offering manatees other food sources, including species of native water plants such as tape grass and eelgrass. They can increase the availability of alternative food sources (such as hydrilla, normally considered an invasive pest, but capable of nourishing manatees in an emergency) by halting the application of herbicides.
After that it’s in God’s hands. “It really does depend on how cold it gets and for how long,” said Patrick Rose, who heads the Save the Manatee Club — and who had nothing but praise for scientists from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the St. Johns River Water Management District who are working long hours on strategies to save the manatees.
It’s notable that none of these actions would be considered acceptable in a normal environment. They are desperate moves for desperate times. And they demand an accounting from the leaders who allowed things to get so bad — along with a plan to hasten the lagoon’s overall recovery as much as humanly possible.
It won’t be easy. The lagoon’s distress — first heralded through blooms of thick, goopy algae blooms that covered the surface of the lagoon as far north as Brevard County — has become dramatically worse in the past few years. But it’s been a long time coming. Runoff from roads and agricultural fields, seepage from old and malfunctioning septic tanks and the flow of sewage from wastewater treatment efforts all contributed to the lagoon’s degradation. Cutting the steady seepage of pollutants is critical to any effort to recover the lagoon’s health. It also carries a price tag that could reach into the hundreds of billions of dollars.
We suspect many Floridians would say that saving the manatees — and preserving the state’s coastal waterways that are so integral to its tourism industry — are worth the investment. They need to speak up now, and make sure they get lawmakers’ attention.
It seems almost incredible that — in the midst of such a deadly environmental meltdown — lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow further destruction of seagrass beds. Yet they are. Bills that would create so-called “mitigation banks” for seagrass are making progress in the House and Senate — and while they’re being presented as measures that would establish protected areas for seagrass, the bills would actually allow developers to destroy vegetation (for example, by building docks) in one area and “mitigate” the damage through new seagrass beds that might be several counties distant.
As state Rep. Randy Fine, R-Titusville, wrote in an op-ed published last weekend, this is reckless at best — even before considering the poor success rate for human-planted underwater vegetation. ” What little seagrass we have left in our lagoon is arguably the hardiest. It has survived decades of damage and pollution,” Fine wrote. “Why would we make it easier to destroy this when its replacement has a limited possibility of success? And might not even be grown in our community?”
Even if Florida weren’t facing a crisis of unprecedented and heartbreaking proportions — even if it weren’t pulling dead and dying manatees from the water nearly every day — this proposal would be folly. Under the present tragic circumstances, it’s nothing more than a sick joke, and lawmakers should stop it in its tracks.