Efforts to save manatees go underwater with the planting of seagrass nursery

SATELLITE BEACH, Florida – Maintaining a garden can be hard work.

Try to do 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 under construction – with seagrasses.

“It’s beautiful. It’s absolutely beautiful,” said Nicholas Sanzone, environmental program coordinator with the city of Satellite Beach, Florida. “We’re not trying to fix everything with this. We’re trying to figure out what works.”

The 156-mile Indian River Lagoon is usually home to acres on acres of seagrass. Yet huge parts of them are dead, creating a bigger problem for the creatures that depend on them.

“There has been a massive mortality of manatees,” said Dennis Hanisak, a research professor at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute. “It is very clear that it is due to hunger. The most important food for manatees is seagrass.”

Last year, more than 1,000 manatees died along Florida’s waters – a record number.

They starve because runoff pollution from farms, manure from people’s farms, among other things, eventually end up in the water. This runoff creates more intense algae blooms, which block sunlight from reaching the seagrass and kill them.

“Unfortunately, everything has somehow come to a standstill in the last two years,” Hanisak said. “But it’s been something that’s been going on for a long time.”

In the short term, manatee rescue programs try to feed the creatures with lettuce to help them survive, but that is not a long-term solution.

This is where FAU’s Hanisak comes in: In a series of tanks, he and a team grow seagrass on the university campus.

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

“I have taken care of new mothers and new babies and worked in a kindergarten. And the seagrass is the kindergarten for all aquatic life,” she said. “So, it goes 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 grass was once abundant. If it works, this project can be used elsewhere.

“Australia is in the process of restoring seagrass,” Sanzone said. “The Chesapeake Bay area has already done a good job with oyster restoration, and we’ve learned from them.”

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

“As mussels and oysters filter the water, it helps the water quality, which allows the seagrass to have better visibility so they can grow with more sunlight,” he said.

A potential benefit could ultimately help save the manatees and restore the balance in the water we all share.

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

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