It shows several vignettes how much human activity has affected wildlife greater than the scene at Florida Power & Light in Cape Canaveral. Hundreds of manatees bask within the inlet channel at its southeast end, attracted by the nice and cozy waters. These manatees are hungry. Pollution has decimated their usual seagrass menu at Indian River Lagoon. Many starved to death: 1,101 people died in Florida in 2021, and as of December 2022 official estimate there have been nearly 800 deaths. So along the canal are members of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission throwing them lettuce.
“It’s just symbolic of how dire the situation is,” says Rachel Silverstein, executive director of the environmental nonprofit Miami Waterkeeper. “The point where we might should artificially feed a wild animal because their ecosystem is so damaged that they can not find food for themselves is kind of extreme.”
The feeding program began in early 2022 restarted this winter, resulting from the persistence of what marine mammal experts call an “a rare mortality event“. “It probably kept the manatees alive,” Silverstein says of the feeding program, “but that is not a sustainable long-term condition for manatees to depend on a man-made food source.”
A everlasting fix would require a lengthy means of environmental restoration, which is partly underway – but it surely’s an enormous task that has placed local environmental advocates at odds with state and federal policymakers. And it’s complex, due to the peculiarities of the Florida coast and the ocean cows that its inhabitants love.
Like most Florida people, manatees are picky about water temperature. It’s just because they do not have loads of body fat. “People think it is a large marine mammal, so it has loads of fat, like a whale, dolphin, seal or sea lion,” says Aarin-Conrad Allen, a marine biologist and graduate student at Florida International University. Since they will not be well insulated, once the water drops below about 68 degrees Fahrenheit, they are going to wander to warmer areas. “That’s why they go to those power plants,” he says, and that is what draws so many to Indian River Lagoon, which stretches about 160 miles along Florida’s space coast.
But over the past 50 years, the human population in Brevard County, where the Indian River is positioned, has nearly tripled. Human activities concurrently increased agriculture within the region, led to more boating accidents that injure manatees (96 percent of them has no less than one propeller scar), dried up Florida’s historic Evergladesand flooded its waterways with pollutants. Because Florida sits on porous bedrock (“principally the Swiss cheese of rocks,” says Silverstein), water and contaminants easily seep into the groundwater. “Everything that happens on the surface also happens underground,” he says.
This means agricultural discharges and sewage spills have raised levels of nutrients comparable to phosphorus and nitrogen in nearby waters. This extra fertilizer fuels microalgae blooms that block sunlight from reaching the seagrass. Dead seagrass can proceed to fertilize flowers. This pollution cascade has destabilized Florida’s ecosystem for plants and herbivores; scientists estimate it about 95 percent sea grasses have died out in parts of the Indian River Lagoon. Without them, manatees die too.