FL - TIPPING POINT
Spike in manatee mortalities a symptom of an ecosystem on the brink of collapse
WHETHER YOU LOVE OR HATE MANATEES, the sudden spike in manatee deaths this winter should cause concern for all Florida residents and visitors. While the images of dead manatees are shocking, their deaths are actually a symptom of a much larger ecosystem problem that imperils multiple facets of Florida’s economy.
The manatee mortality numbers this winter are largely driven by a die-off of seagrass meadows in the Indian River Lagoon (IRL) on Florida’s east coast. Seagrasses serve as the manatees’ primary food source, so many of the manatees wintering in the IRL are starving to death. But seagrass beds do far more for Florida than just feed manatees. According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s website, seagrass improves water clarity by anchoring bottom sediments and provides shelter and food for juvenile redfish, sea trout, shrimp, bay scallops, crabs, lobsters and other species.
Property values and the coastal tourism business rely upon waters being sparkling clear and beautiful, with the chance to see charismatic creatures such as dolphins and manatees. Florida’s commercial and sport fishing industries rely directly on the output of fish and other species of seafood that grow up in the nurseries that seagrass meadows provide. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates the statewide economic impact of recreational saltwater fishing alone at $9.2 billion with 88,501 jobs supported.
“With tourism being the main draw to Florida, a lot of people want to go fishing,” said Capt. Billy Norris, the owner of Pale Horse Fishing Charters in Southwest Florida and president of Tamiami Sportsman’s Coalition. “They watch the fishing shows on TV and the videos on You- Tube, but people aren’t going to want to go fishing with red tide and diminished fish populations. If fishing disappears, we’re in trouble.”