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Effort to save manatees goes underwater with planting of seagrass nursery

Last year, more than 1,000 manatees died along Florida's waters - a record-breaking number. They are starving to death because runoff pollution from farms, fertilizers from people's yards, among other things, eventually end up in the water. That runoff creates more intense algae blooms, which block sunlight from reaching seagrasses, killing off huge swaths of them. Now, there is a pilot program that hopes to restore some of the seagrass beds.
The 156-mile Indian River Lagoon is normally home to acres upon acres of seagrasses. Yet, huge swaths of them have died, which is creating a bigger problem for the creatures that rely on them, like manatees.
Using coolers, they collect and take the seagrasses to be transplanted into the water, with help from volunteers like registered nurse Susan Milette.
In a series of tanks, they are growing seagrasses on the campus of Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute. The seagrasses are then being transplanted into a protected section of lagoon, to see if seagrass beds can be restored.
Using oyster shells, a dividing line is created in part of Florida's Indian River Lagoon, between the seagrass nursery and the open water, where the grasses were once plentiful. Volunteers prepare to plant the seagrasses, in the hopes they will take root. If this pilot program works, this project could be applied in other places.
Posted at 10:40 AM, Apr 29, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-29 10:40:11-04

SATELLITE BEACH, Fla. — Maintaining a garden can be hard work.

Try doing it underwater.

It may not look like it at first glance, but in a lagoon on Florida’s East Coast, there is an underwater lawn-in-the-making - with seagrasses.

"It's beautiful. It's absolutely beautiful,” said Nicholas Sanzone, environmental programs coordinator with the City of Satellite Beach, Florida. "We're not trying to fix everything with this. We're trying to find out what works."

The 156-mile Indian River Lagoon is normally home to acres upon acres of seagrasses. Yet, huge swaths of them have died, which is creating a bigger problem for the creatures that rely on them.

"There's been a massive mortality of manatees,” said Dennis Hanisak, a research professor at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute. "It's very clear that it's due to starvation. The principal food of manatees is seagrass."

Last year, more than 1,000 manatees died along Florida's waters - a record-breaking number.

They're starving because runoff pollution from farms, fertilizers from people's yards, among other things, eventually end up in the water. That runoff creates more intense algae blooms, which block sunlight from reaching seagrasses, killing them off.

"Unfortunately, everything has kind of come to a head in the last two years,” Hanisak said. “But it's been something that's been in the making for a long time."

In the short-term, manatee rescue programs are trying to feed the creatures lettuce to help them survive, but it's not a long-term solution.

That's where FAU’s Hanisak comes in: in a series of tanks, he and a team are growing seagrasses on the university's campus.

Using coolers, they collect and take the seagrasses to be transplanted into the water, with help from volunteers like registered nurse Susan Milette.

"I've taken care of new moms and new babies and worked in a nursery. And the seagrass is the nursery for all aquatic life,” she said. “So, it just segways right into what I do: what I love professionally and what we need to do for our future."

Using oyster shells, they created a dividing line in the lagoon, between the seagrass nursery and the open water, where the grasses were once plentiful. If it works, this project could be applied in other places.

"Australia is doing seagrass restoration," Sanzone said. "The Chesapeake Bay area has already done a great job at oyster restoration and we've learned from them."

Through Sanzone’s work, the City of Satellite Beach is partnering with FAU on the program.

"As the clams and oysters are filtering out the water, that helps that water quality, which allows the seagrasses to have better visibility, so they can grow with more sunlight," he said.

One potential benefit could eventually help save the manatees and restore a balance to the waters we all share.

"We live now and as a species that has a 100-year lifespan, we act in our time frame, in our windows," Sanzone said. "We want to make sure that it's healthy and happy while we live here."