State task force biologist weighs in on manatee deaths

Loss of seagrass blamed for animals facing starvation

Scientists study the Indian River Lagoon as Florida sees record manatee deaths (SJR)

VOLUSIA COUNTY – Wildlife officers say hundreds of manatees have died across Florida already this year and most of those deaths happened in the Indian River Lagoon.

Scientists say the animals are starving to death because the seagrass they eat has mostly died off.

At the St. John’s River Water Management District, scientists are researching and testing the Lagoon’s waters, working to find a solution.

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“From 2009, in terms of the footprint, we’ve lost about 58 percent of the seagrass,” Dr. Charles Jacoby said.

Jacoby is an environmental scientist with the water management district and he’s on the governor’s red tide task force.

He said the seagrass that’s left is even sparser.

The number of manatee deaths this year has broken records, with 866 deaths recorded in the first seven months of 2021 — compare that to 637 in all of 2020.

“Eventually, this last year was when the cold snaps were too much for them to take,” Jacoby said.

Jacoby has been researching the lagoon’s water make-up and developing projects to clean it.

“The Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program has tried to accumulate the list of projects and it’s in the billions of dollars,” he said.

Most of those projects are to filter nutrients out of run-off water and slow down algae growth. Jacoby said there’s a 15-year target to see good results.

“Part of what makes it special is the water doesn’t move through it very rapidly but that also makes it vulnerable because anything that gets in there stays in there,” he said.

He also said just replanting the seagrass isn’t easy since it’s hard to grow.

“Seagrass needs protection from manatees and other grazers — other things that eat them — until they get established,” he said.

Jacoby said they’re unsure what the long-term effects will be on the manatee population but there are ways you can help speed up the process.

“Be mindful (with the) use of fertilizer and irrigation. Things like washing your car on the grass instead of on the driveway, not putting anything down storm drains but the rainwater,” he said.

About the Author:

Molly joined News 6 at the start of 2021, returning home to Central Florida.