Crystal River, Credit: Paul Nicklen/National Geographic 2013.I
Slide from “Manatee UME on the Florida Atlantic Coast 2020-2021” -Martine de Wit, DVM
I wanted to share today’post because I have recently been exposed to this inofrmation. Most of it is very disturbing, and unfortunately, it is going to get even more so. We have to prepare. We have to decide. As winter approaches, we are going to have to face some hard choices about manatees.
As we all know, Florida’s manatee’s are in the middle of a UME or Unusual Mortality Event. It has been documented by FWC that most deaths are due to starvation as the seagrass meadows of the 156 mile long Indian River Lagoon are dead, dying, or in poor condition, due to poor water quality, algae blooms, discharges (S.IRL) , and thus lack of sunlight. The Florida Wildlife Commission’s 2021 numbers are displayed in the chart below and more information can be found here.
This August, Martine de Wit, DVM, presented a power point to the Management Board of the Indian River Lagoon Council. It is heartbreaking but should be seen by all.
The bottom line is: this winter the migrating manatees will have site fidelity (like elephants) to the four power plants along the IRL. In the past, as many as 2500 have stayed true to the warm waters near Cape Canaveral’s power plant in the northern central IRL. The question is, not who will come this year, it’s just how many. These manatees will be warm but there are no longer historic seagrass beds to eat. In spite of this, they will stay and put being warm first. Since we know there is no seagrass and since we know they will gather in their known warm waters, should we try to feed them or relocate them/something not supported in the past…
This remarkable photograph was recently taken at Volusia Blue Springs by John Moran (http://www.johnmoranphoto.com). Over 500 manatees had gathered! This certainly begs the question: “What is the proper term for a large group of manatees?”
Are they called a “herd” like their cousins the elephants?
No, I learned, they are not…
A large group of manatees is referred to as “an aggregation.”
That’s kind of strange? Isn’t that terminology reserved more for molecular biology? Apparently not!
Terminology aside, I just wanted to share John’s wonderful photo. Isn’t it beautiful? Florida is so cool! Panther, bears and manatees!
As it warms up and these gentle giants disperse into our estuaries, please be aware that under your boat could be one, two, or an “aggregation of manatees.” 😁
“Manatees often swim alone or in pairs. They are not territorial, so they have no need for a leader or followers. When manatees are seen in a group, it is either a mating herd or an informal meeting of the species simply sharing a warm area that has a large food supply. A group of manatees is called an aggregation.” https://www.livescience.com/27405-manatees.html
With the mid-term election behind us, it’s time to get to work, and along the Indian River Lagoon and St Lucie River that means it’s time to get reconnected to Nature during the cool season before the Algae Monster arrives again.
Last week, as the keynote speaker for the Florida Springs Restoration Summit in Ocala, I had an amazing back to nature experience. On a Silver River Guided Paddle Adventure with Dr Robert Knight leading the way, five manatees swam underneath my kayak!
They looked so beautiful, so graceful, so confident, and so powerful!
I could see them perfectly through the clear water of Silver Springs. During the summit, I learned that only recently the spring’s water magnitude had increased to historic levels ~after aquifer recharge of a very rainy 2017, thanks to Hurricane Irma.
Florida springs suffer from lack of water because the Water Management Districts, at the direction of their leaders, over-permit water extraction for more agriculture and development. Also, nutrient pollution haunts the spring-shed due to nitrate leaching of old septic tanks. When flow is low and nitrate high, benthic algae grows on the once white sand bottom of the springs. Almost all Florida springs deal with this issue.
But on this recent day, the day of my tour, Silver Springs was glistening, and its bottom bursting with eel grass. The manatees munched at their leisure, mothers and calves reflecting a bluish hue underneath the clear, streaming water.
As the manatees swam under my little boat, I felt a joy unknown since childhood. “An ancient herd of elephants just swam under my kayak!” I thought, laughing out loud.
And in this moment of pure inspiration, I recalled an image from home of a starving manatee struggling to eat weeds and grasses along the Intercostal. Of course after years of harsh discharges from Lake Okeechobee and area canals, the sea grass forests are dead.
I brought my mind back to this present gift before me. And told the Silver manatees I would return home inspired to fight for all, and that were were indeed, one Florida water family.
River Kidz, an organization created in 2011 in the Town of Sewall’s Point “by kids for kids,” whose mission is “to speak out, get involved, and raise awareness, because we believe kids should have a voice in the future of our rivers,” is expanding its range.
The group’s message will now encompass not only the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon, but also the Caloosahatchee and Florida Bay. These three south Florida estuaries all suffer due to longstanding mis-management practices of Lake Okeechobee by the Army Corp of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District. You may have most recently heard about these three estuaries together as Senate President Joe Negron has proposed a land purchase in the Everglades Agricultural Area and a deep reservoir to improve the situation.
So what’s the problem?
Ft Meyer’s Calooshahatchee River on the west coast gets too much, or too little water, “depending.” And Florida Bay, especially in regards to Taylor Slough near Homestead, hardly gets any water at all. In fact the waterbody is reported to have lost up to 50,000 acres of seagrass due to high salinity. No way! And here at home, as we know first hand, during wet years the St Lucie/Indian River Lagoon is pummeled with Lake O water causing toxic algae blooms beyond comprehension as experienced in 2016.
In all cases, whether it is too much, or too little water, algae blooms, destruction of water quality, and demise of valuable wildlife habitat ensues. Kids know about this because the most recent generation has lived this first hand. -A kid growing up, not being able to go in the water or fish or swim? No way!!!!
We can see from the satellite photo below how odd the situation is with the EAA lands just south of Lake Okeechobee engineered to be devoid of water so the EAA plants “don’t get their feet wet” while the rest of the southern state suffers. Yes, even a four-year old kid can see this! 🙂
To tell this story, in Kidz fashion, new characters have been created. Familiar, Marty the Manatee of the St Lucie River/Southern Indian River Lagoon, has been joined by two new friends: Milly the Manatee from the Caloosahatchee, and Manny the Manatee from Florida Bay. Quite the trio!
Also joining the motley crew is a white pelican, sometimes visitor to Lake Okeechobee, Florida Bay, and the Central IRL; also a stunning orange footed Everglades Snail Kite complete with Apple Snail; and last but not least, the poor “blamed for mankind’s woes of not being able to send water south,” the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow. Finally, she will have a chance to share her story. Endangered species, weather, and the water-cycle will be added to the curriculum.
Workbooks will be available free of charge thanks to donations from The Knoph Family Foundation, and Ms. Michelle Weiler.
Workbook Brainstormers: River Kidz co- founders Evie Flaugh and Naia Mader; the River Kidz, (especially River Kidz member #1, Jack Benton); Julia Kelly, artist; Valerie Gaynor, Martin County School System; Nic Mader, Dolphin Ecology Project; Crystal Lucas, Marine Biology teacher and her daughter Hannah; and Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch, former mayor and commissioner of the Town of Sewall’s Point. Workbooks will meet Florida Standards and be approved by the Martin County School System thanks to Superintendent, Laurie Gaylord.
Right now there are two “Unusual Mortality Events/UMEs” occurring in the Indian River Lagoon and another along the Atlantic Coast. Hundreds of marine mammals and pelicans have died but fortunately the IRL UMEs have slowed down.
The UME for Indian River Lagoon manatees “and pelicans” started in 2012; another for Indian River Lagoon bottle-nosed dolphins that do not usually leave the lagoon began in 2013; and the third for larger Atlantic coast dwelling/migrating bottle-nosed dolphins stated around 2012/13. According to state and federal agencies, the Indian River Lagoon UMEs are “mysterious,” but thankfully “they” can say they know the Atlantic dolphin UME is “morbillavirus,” or dolphin measles.
Interesting how in the Indian River Lagoon, the UMEs coincide with the also “mysterious” loss of 60% of its seagrasses since 2009/10; this situation really “crashed” and became public in 2013, simultaneous with the dumping from Lake Okeechobee and the peoples’ River Movement in Martin and St Lucie Counties in the southern lagoon.
For every day folk, unlike our federal and state agencies, there is no “mystery,” there simply is not enough left for the animals to eat. While being so critical, I should note a commonly spread falsehood, “that the releases from Lake Okeechobee are causing the die off in the northern/central lagoon,” is untrue. Certainly they negativelyaffect and help cause disease in the souther lagoon, but Brevard and Volusia counties, over a hundred miles north, are too distant for the releases to be killing these animals directly. Particularly northern lagoon dolphins who are very territorial and generally stay in either the north.
Nonetheless, it is worth noting that the southern lagoon right now, especially the Ft Pierce area, is one of the few half-way healthy areas remaining, so dumping that is pushed up to Ft Pierce Inlet, from Stuart, is part of an overall death for the IRL: north and central horrid algae blooms and UMEs, and then the southern lagoon’s problems with Lake Okeechobee releases and its other canals causing seagrass loss, up to 85% according to Florida Oceanographic’s Mark Perry.
So UMEs in the IRL and seagrass loss are related and the agencies recognize this connection but still consider the UMEs a “mystery.”
To close, one of the concerns of Stephen McCulloch, former director of the marine mammal department at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, is that southwardly migrating dolphins along the Atlantic coast could enter the Indian River Lagoon, or a rare lagoon dolphin may exit an inlet and interact with oceanic dolphins then spreading morbillavirus among the already “mysteriously sick” Indian River Lagoon dolphins.
McCulloch is concerned if the virus entered the lagoon, it could “kill them all.”
There were fewer than one thousand in the lagoon loosely documented before the 2013 IRL dolphin UME and now it is accepted that over 10 percent of those have died. This, as all marine mammal health, is a very serious matter.