manatee surfacing

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A manatee coming up to the water surface to breathe amid floating seagrass blades.

Manatees are having a hard time around Florida. Are we next? If we don’t pay attention to the lessons right in front of us, we could be.

The FWC reports that between Jan. 1 and July 2 of this year, 841 manatee deaths were recorded. That’s more than died in all of 2013, which previously held the record for most annual manatee deaths at 830. What’s causing this, and what does it mean for us?

Most of the dead animals have been in and around the Indian River Lagoon on the East Coast. Lack of food is the major problem there. Starvation is thinning their manatee herds. In that area, seagrasses have been killed off by massive blooms of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) fueled by Lake Okeechobee discharges.

High nutrient loads in Okeechobee are a huge issue and not sustainable. By the way, don’t point the finger at sugar farmers: The Kissimmee River dumps tons of nutrients into the north end of the lake. The lagoon system was already saturated with nutrients from septic systems before they added eutrophic Lake O discharges. This pushed waters past the tipping point and led to disastrous algal blooms.

These are old problems we now must deal with. Jeb Bush attempted to address much of this when he was governor 15 years ago, but subsequent leaders ignored these issues. Bush’s plans never got funded and completed. Fortunately, there is much work underway right now addressing these messes. Let’s hope these projects get completed.

Discharges are deemed crucial by the Army Corps of Engineers to prevent flooding of the lake. The Corps’ plan for excess water has long been to pump it through canals to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers. Old dikes can only hold back so much. When they changed the safe levels for lake heights, it increased the need for dumping.

The St. Lucie feeds into the Indian River Lagoon. Because dumping trashed the lagoon’s water system with the overloads, they now send more of it our way via the Caloosahatchee. The Corps is presently responding to intense pressures from Lee and Collier counties to reconsider.

Red tide outbreaks coinciding with releases have put these counties’ economies at risk again this year due to loss of tourism dollars. Charlotte County is less affected, but flows north thru Matlacha do dump into our Harbor.


With the lagoon’s seagrasses decimated by polluted waters, manatees have turned to the shorelines for greenery. I’m hearing stories of them reaching out of the water to feed on any vegetation they can grab. Low mangrove branches have been stripped. But the population of manatees is no longer within the carrying capacity of the habitat, so animals are dying. As custodians of Florida’s environment, we need to help resolve these challenges.

Locally, manatees are OK — for now, at least. But we are losing seagrasses here, and it’s a fact, that deficient food sources reduce carrying capacity. How long will it be until our Charlotte Harbor manatees start to run low on grass to graze?

Here’s something to consider: FWC sprays toxic chemicals to kill freshwater aquatic vegetation. Because many of us raised a ruckus about this practice, they got very quiet and more discreet with it. Herbicides destroy fish habitats, kills other critter, and return nutrients back into suspension in our already nutrient-rich waters. This in turn feeds the algae, creating more problems. It’s not a sustainable solution.

Would it make more sense to transport manatees from areas lacking food to areas needing vegetation removal? We might need to move them regularly, but that’s not a big deal since we transport them for rescue regularly and they are tough enough to survive it well. This plan might help mitigate two problems — three if you add in the amount of nutrients not being released.

We could utilize rehabilitated manatees to help also. To help you understand how much the manatees eat, Tampa Zoos were spending a million dollars per year on romaine lettuce feeding rehab manatees. (By the way, they then had to then recondition the animals to native vegetation before release. Efficiency is not always considered when saving popular animals.)

Why not use their big appetites to help our aquatic vegetation challenges instead of pouring dangerous chemicals into the water? It’s certainly worth an experiment.

The reality is that our environments are finite and can only sustain a fixed amount of life, whether it’s manatees or people. Carrying capacity is not just just some abstract concept — it’s real, and it applies to every species, including us.

Capt. Van Hubbard is a highly respected outdoor writer and fishing guide. He has been a professional USCG-licensed year-round guide since 1976, and has been fishing the Southwest Florida coast since 1981. Contact him at 941-468-4017 or VanHubbard@CaptVan.com.

Capt. Van Hubbard is a highly respected outdoor writer and fishing guide. He has been a professional USCG-licensed year-round guide since 1976, and has been fishing the Southwest Florida coast since 1981. Contact him at 941-468-4017 or VanHubbard@CaptVan.com.

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