Addressing manatee woes amid water quality crisis could take time, experts say

Winter will come before water-quality issues can be fully addressed to help threatened manatees, which have already experienced a record number of deaths this year in Florida waters.

With more than 840 manatee deaths reported in the state this year, members of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on Wednesday expressed a need for patience after receiving an outline of efforts to combat a significant decline in water quality, particularly along the state’s East Coast. The water-quality problems have caused a significant loss of seagrass, which is a primary source of food for manatees.

"A couple of things that are, you know, scary things to say, but you know the long-term solution of habitat restoration, that's seagrass restoration, doesn't happen overnight," Commissioner Mike Sole, a former secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, said. "So, I call it a five- to 10-year process. … We really can't start planting grasses until water quality is reasonably squared away in certain parts."

Kate MacFall, state director of The Humane Society of the United States, said the commission could use the manatee situation as an opportunity to improve state waters.

"We urge you to work with the (Department of Environmental Protection), the water management districts, the legislators --- I know you already do, but even more --- and others to find ways to improve the quality of water, of what is discharged into our waterways," MacFall said. "You have a loud voice, and this agency carries a lot of weight and a lot of authority and people listen."

Gil McRae, director of the commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, said the commission continues to monitor how manatees that survived during the past winter are responding, as the state considers creation of warm-water thermal basins across the state.

Aquatic vegetation restoration efforts are underway near springs in the St. Johns River and at Blue Spring State Park. Also, a workshop is being planned for next spring on warm-water habitat and is expected to include Florida Power & Light. Manatees typically gather in warm water areas during winter months, including lagoons near power plants.

In the short term, the commission will continue to investigate health effects and prioritize rescue efforts of what is being called an "unusual mortality event."

The current state budget includes $8 million to improve manatee habitat and access to Florida’s natural springs. The commission has five years to use the money.

Florida waters have between 7,520 and 10,280 of the threatened species, which commission Chairman Rodney Barreto called a success story as manatees were reclassified in 2017 as no longer considered endangered.

Barreto complained about manatee preservation efforts that have focused on interactions between boaters and manatees, which account for about 25 percent of manatee deaths.

"These commercials are to kind of rip people's hearts, which to me is a little bit of a disservice," Barreto said. "I mean, I get it. It’s a fundraising tactic, and they raise a lot of money. But I think the public should know that it’s red tide, it’s the disease out there, it's forage, and then there are boats."

The number of deaths this year had already surpassed the prior one-year record of 830 in 2013.

A staff memo reported that more than half the manatee deaths reported along the Atlantic coast occurred in Brevard County, where many manatees crowded in search of warm water because of a cold snap in December.

Larry Williams, the state supervisor for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, said there doesn’t appear to be a link between polluted water discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie estuary and the increase in manatee deaths.

"The reason we're confident that the discharge to the St. Lucie estuary, St. Lucie Inlet is so far south compared to where the majority of this has happened, and this has primarily happened in Brevard and Volusia County," Williams said.

Sole said the seagrass is also being impacted by degraded water quality in the Intracoastal Waterway in St. Lucie County, but not to the scale of in Brevard County.

"Fortunately, there's still some grass there," Sole said of the seagrass in St. Lucie County waters.