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Florida’s Perfect Environmental Storm: The Complex Balance of Biodiversity and Sustainability – Part II: Manatees in Peril

Manatees of Crystal River - by Mike Engiles
Manatees of Crystal River - by Mike Engiles

This article is the first part of a series covering a controversial subject with a number of differing positions on the cause, effect, and solutions to the red tide crisis.

Article by Selene Muldowney; photos from Mike Engiles

At first you are greeted with a stench – a stench that tingles your nose as it spreads into your throat, a burning sensation griping your now shallow breathing, your lungs filling with putrid particulates – then your eyes gaze toward the red-brown, muddy waters and the shoreline littered with rotting carcasses.

The normally clear waves along the Florida Gulf coast has been plagued by toxic levels of a sea algae called Karenia brevis. These blooms of algae, naturally occurring at low levels around the Gulf of Mexico fed by nutrients from fertilizers, pesticides, wind, and ocean currents have washed ashore and along Florida’s southwestern coastline. This phenomenon known as red tide turns the beautiful crystal-clear waters near the shore into the murky putrid mess encountered by aquatic animals and humans. This bloom first started drifting toward the Gulf Coast of Florida sometime in October of 2017 with dire consequence; leaving a trail of death killing fish, sea turtles, sharks, whales, birds, invertebrates, and Manatees.  In addition to suffocating fish, the algae also confuses sea turtles and kills manatees that mistakenly eat the contaminated sea grass. Birds that eat contaminated prey also suffer.

There are a number of reasons the algae blooms develop and have become as rampant and deadly as they have in recent years. These blooms have been document around the Gulf of Mexico since anywhere between the 1500s to early 1700s and while its presence wax and wane, there is evidence to suggest the K. brevis will grow faster as the carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere increase. This could lead to the conclusion, that in an age where the globe is warming, algae bloom may become more potent.

To make matters worse, the inland waterways are clogged with another bloom of vibrant green cyanobacteria. Runoff from cattle/dairy farms and residential developments that lie north of the state’s largest freshwater body, Lake Okeechobee, carries in nutrients, turning its waters into a thick green smoothie. On the south of the lake development and sugar cane farms prevent the natural trickling and filtering of overflow through the Everglades which results in the release of the polluted water into the estuaries that lead out to the sea. Worse yet, the problem is mired in politics and the whodunnit syndrome.

The debate over cause seems endless as Floridians struggle to cope with the ever-changing water conditions and casualties. Some have posited the cause is human-made nutrients driving the algae blooms and removing and/or requiring increased regulations from farming and other agricultural developments will mitigate the introduction of these nutrients into the water. Others posit the introduction of pesticides to alleviate the blooms is actually accelerating the bloom’s growth. Global warming has also been cited as a driving factor to the rise in harmful algae although human interference is still questionable since in some locales many of the nutrients come from natural resources and periodically the combination of winds and currents cause the algae to bloom rapidly.

The Manatee dilemma

More than 6,300 manatees call Florida home which is an impressive comeback since 1991 when there were 1,200 left. Sadly about 540 manatees have died this year with a number of them directly linked to the red tide. Manatees suffer when they nibble on seagrass that’s been contaminated with the algae. It produces a powerful brevetoxin that harms their central nervous system. It is unclear if the brevetoxin kills the manatee or the dangerously low oxygen levels produced by the algae.

Mike Englies, manatee tour operator of Crystal River Waterports and Manatee Eco Tourism Association (M.E.T.A.) president, has seen a number of changes in manatee conservation efforts. Established 19 years ago, Crystal River Watersports offers a full range of scuba dive training and local water tours with a focus on manatees. Engles purchased the business five years ago and operates four dive and tour boats daily stating,” Manatees have an international appeal and we regularly take tourists and divers out to see them, but we do not allow scuba diving when in proximity to the manatees. We strictly adhere to passive observation through snorkeling.”

His operation is 100 miles away from the red tide coastline and while he has not seen direct consequences from the algae bloom he is very aware of the dwindling numbers of manatees.

Engiles states, “Locally in Crystal River and Citrus County we did not experience any red tide. However, the manatees that winter here may have been in areas that were affected. Thoughts are that while the red tide increased mortality, it directly increased it by about 25%. Indirectly, there may be longer implications because rehab facilities are overwhelmed and there may be fewer spaces for winter cold stress related rescues. Unfortunately, there are limited resources and that impacts decisions on when to rescue vs nature taking its course.”

Manatees of Crystal River - by Mike Engiles
Manatees of Crystal River – by Mike Engiles

Engiles believes conservation is necessary regardless of how the manatees are dying. As a result, he and other manatee tour operators and conservation minded groups have joined in partnership to promote the wellbeing for the manatees. It took some time for these different businesses and organizations to work and develop a strategy toward a common interest. Both want to make sure eco-tourism is sustainable and to provide protection for the environment, namely the manatees.  This partnership grew out of the work both conducted by M.E.T.A. and Save the Manatee Club.

The Manatee Eco Tourism Association (M.E.T.A.) is an organization comprised of Crystal River businesses and organizations, which is committed to responsible, safe interactions with manatees and their environments. Association members pledge to uphold courtesy, cooperation, and safety to visitors and fellow operators, and ensure manatees are observed passively and peacefully.

Local M.E.T.A. manatee tours include Crystal River Watersports, Crystal River Kayak Company & Dive Center, Birds Underwater, and Manatee Tour and Dive.

M.E.T.A. has joined with Save the Manatee Club (SMC) of Maitland, Florida to produce the Guardian Guides Stewardship Program: a series of principles designed to promote manatee stewardship and the protection of their ecosystem while opening safe, sustainable ecotourism opportunities. Under the program, committed manatee tour operators must adjust their schedules to allow manatees to rest, adhere to passive observation, limit tours to 12 or fewer guests per guide, prevent overcrowding at viewing sites, and share manatee and environmental stewardship to guests and guides.

In the last few weeks the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has announced that the Florida’s coastal waters are entirely free of red tide algal blooms, according to the latest round of tests. The Karenia Brevis algae that causes red tide was only observed in four Southwest Florida water samples over the past week. It was not observed in northwest Florida or along the east coast over the past week. It appears there have been no additional casualties from the red tide. While this is good news for beach goers it certainly is better new for the ocean residents whose brethren have tide at the mercy of an algae bloom. The red tide is in remission for now – some maps predict days while others predict weeks, but ultimately the situation is far from over. The warm waters will once again caress the shorelines and bring with the tide a resurgence of the deadly bloom … will Florida be better prepared?