Manatees die at record rate as environmental problems worsen

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STUART, Florida – Jim Moir’s back dock in Stuart is near the intersection of the St. Lucia River and Indian River Lagoon. It’s a beautiful sight, at first glance. The longtime advocate of marine conservation knows full well that beneath the surface there are ever-growing problems. Concrete example, a record mortality of manatees this year.

“The devastation was an event of famine, these animals starved for almost 10 years,” Moir said.

The figures are astounding. More than 900 manatee deaths recorded so far this year in Florida.

Moir said two of those three deaths occurred in the Indian River Lagoon. One main reason is the loss of seagrass. Seagrass beds serve as food for manatees, and Moir said they have long been lost, and especially in the past decade due to pollution. Without it, gentle creatures are deeply endangered.

“Famine was somewhat inevitable because humans didn’t notice the pollution from the nutrients we dump into our estuaries,” Moir told me.

The runoff of ranch and farm manure in the water that has long swept east of Lake Okeechobee is a culprit. The same goes for urban and suburban runoff and septic tank leaks. The list is long. The result of all this nutrient-rich runoff is a supercharged algal bloom that cuts through the light seagrass beds they need to thrive.

“It has,” Moir said of the estuary and lagoon, “a seagrass-dominated ecology, and now we can see a macroalgae-dominated ecology.”

Moir said that in recent years there were signs of improving water quality, but habitat recovery, he said, is not happening. He argues that there is a need for living shorelines rich in vegetation and a focus on more comprehensive wastewater management.

“Our (human) ability to survive as a dominant species depends on the resilience of the ecosystem we live in, and the diversity of the ecosystem is responsible for its resilience,” he added.

Sizeable challenges and Moir is committed to continuing, for the beloved and endangered manatees, for all of us. “I’m a father too,” Moir tells me, “and I have to give him a better place. That’s why I keep doing what I do.”


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