Although Blue Spring visitors are mostly OK, degrading water quality is killing sea cows in other parts of the state
BY JAYLEN WALTON
“Don’t back up! Don’t back up! She’s right behind you, she’s — oh, never mind! She’s below you now!”
The volunteer in the kayak continues her swiveling surveillance of the cove in Blue Spring State Park, keeping a close eye on divers swimming near one of Florida’s most iconic figures.
The boardwalk running alongside the waterway is filled with people crowding around a wooden barrier, all vying for a glimpse of the lone manatee resting peacefully beneath the water.
Like the hundreds of other manatees that gather in Blue Spring each winter, Plantaina the manatee — affectionately named for her roots in South Florida — seems to have decided that Blue Spring in Orange City makes for an excellent home.
Though most of the manatees have moved on this year as the weather has warmed, Plantaina apparently plans to stick around a little longer.
Blue Spring State Park is a happy and healthful home for manatees; they are well cared for and protected. But other manatees in Florida — including in Volusia County — aren’t as fortunate.
They face dangers that threaten their existence — human-caused dangers that could be avoided. If we continue to ignore the environmental crisis looming over our waters, manatees like Plantaina will pay the price.
In parts of the state, high nutrient levels have degraded water quality and killed off aquatic plants that manatees need to survive. The excess of nutrients — nitrogen and phosphorus — comes from a variety of sources: fertilizers, septic tanks, stormwater runoff, and other byproducts of human activities, which can cause harmful algae blooms that eliminate other plant life.
The past year set new mortality records for Florida manatees along the Atlantic coast, specifically in the Indian River Lagoon, which spans approximately 456 miles from Ponce Inlet to Port St. Lucie.
A total of 1,101 manatees died over the course of 2021, with 76 of the deaths within Volusia County. All signs point to starvation as the main cause. Algae blooms have caused a severe loss of seagrass, which is the manatees’ primary food. And evidence shows that this mortality event isn’t isolated in 2021. As of April 2022, 479 more manatee deaths had been confirmed.
Most of these deaths were not West Volusia manatees living in Blue Spring or the St. Johns River. There are four subpopulations of manatees in Florida: the Southwest Coast, the Northwest Coast, the Atlantic Coast and the upper St. Johns.
Most of the manatees seen by visitors to Blue Spring State Park live in the upper St. Johns, according to Cora Berchem, director of multimedia and a research associate with the Save the Manatee Club, a group long devoted to conservation and protection of manatees.
There’s an obvious question here: What saved this region from the manatee devastation occurring in other parts of the state?
“It’s important to keep in mind that manatees don’t just feed on seagrass,” Berchem said.
While seagrass is a major food source, manatees also feed on freshwater plants and floating vegetation such as water hyacinth and alligator weed. In the Blue Spring area, the habitat and its components are protected.
This means manatees in the Blue Spring area — such as the lovable Plantaina — have an abundance of vegetation to feed on, even if seagrass is lost to algae blooms. However, manatees in the other four subpopulations — especially the Atlantic Coast — are in dire need of assistance if we hope to see any kind of population recovery.
If there is anything to be learned from this disaster-in-the-making, it is that proactiveness is key. Environmental issues are complex and intricate. While there is always the potential to go back and fix the problem, it’s difficult. It would be better to avoid such problems altogether.
“I think I can speak on behalf of the Save the Manatee Club. There were ample warning signs for this,” Berchem said. “I believe we actually found the first signs of declining water quality and declining food sources in 2011.”
The years 2009 and 2010 had particularly cold winters, which affected vegetation, including seagrasses. Hot summers and intense hurricanes in the following years further contributed to the problem.
“If [waters are] polluted, plants can’t grow because they don’t have enough sunlight. You have the perfect condition for an algae bloom to break out and cloud out all the seagrasses,” Berchem said.
With environmental concerns, it can take several years to fully realize the extent of what is happening and the consequences. Berchem believes a combination of factors led to this situation, and while no one could have predicted the severity, there were plenty of red flags.
“If you look back over the years, there were pretty severe blue-green algae blooms or brown algae blooms along the Atlantic coast — we have fish kills associated with that. And now we’ve seen the tipping point of all this in the beginning of 2021, when suddenly all these dead manatees were showing up,” Berchem said. “All of that was an indication for a system that was in pretty dire trouble.”
The Save the Manatee Club has been advocating for a long time for stronger protections, stricter water-quality measures, and more enforcement.
“There are incidences where people, organizations, or companies will literally just dump untreated sewage into the lagoon and there’s almost no consequences for that. Or for septic tanks, you know, fertilizer runoff,” Berchem said, regarding the hazards to environmental health. “There may be some rules on paper, but if they’re not enforced, that’s very difficult.”
Berchem knows firsthand what can happen if people and companies are not held accountable. It is all too easy for things to spiral out of control.
Tragically, it required hundreds of dead manatees showing up for the public to realize how bad the situation is.
“Hopefully going forward, this really was a wake-up call. I hope that there’s going to be stronger enforcement and just more of a public outcry,” Berchem said.
But even the best intentions won’t be enough to solve this problem. While efforts have been made to temporarily assist the manatees — such as a winter feeding trial in December 2021 — Berchem predicts it will take years before such a degraded system can once again be a healthy habitation for manatees.
“What we really need to work on is the underlying problems that caused this issue to begin with, such as fixing leaking septic tanks, having stronger enforcement so that we don’t have these major sewage spills, or people getting away with dumping pollutants into the waterways,” Berchem said. “We need to address the source of the problem.”
She likes to compare the manatees’ plight to a deep open wound.
“You’re not just going to put a little Band- Aid on it and hope for it to go away,” she said. “The surface may heal, but if you have some big infection underneath, that little Band-Aid is not going to do anything for it.”
Addressing the root cause of the problem is essential to making meaningful and lasting improvements. This, of course, is the crux of the issue. How does one inform the public of this environmental crisis and motivate individuals to take action? This is the million-dollar question.
“Ultimately, we as humans are dependent on the environment in Florida,” said Casey Ramey, an environmental-studies major at Stetson University with a passion for manatees.
Ramey has been closely following the manatee-mortality event, tracking manatee deaths in Volusia County via a scientific and artistic collaboration piece. “If we’re seeing problems here, it’s only a matter of time before we see more problems for us directly.”
Berchem agrees wholeheartedly with this sentiment, emphasizing the idea that the entirety of Florida — flora and fauna, including humans — are dependent on a healthy environment. Whether or not you care about manatees, the degradations affecting them are a problem that will have widespread and devastating consequences across the board.
“Even if you really don’t care about the environment, you probably still care about the economy,” Berchem said.
Florida’s economy greatly relies on tourism. People come to Florida to experience its beauty, whether through fishing, boating, kayaking, bicycling or nature tours. Who is going to want to come to the Atlantic coast if all they’re going to see are manatee carcasses, fish killings, and polluted waters?
The answer should be rather obvious: No one.
We can only imagine what state Florida businesses would find themselves in if tourism attractions suddenly came to a halt because of a problem that could have been avoided, had people been inclined to take action.
If human actions brought the manatees to this point of crisis, then it is only right that humans take action to attempt to fix the problem.
“They’re living creatures just like we are,” Ramey said when asked about her opinion on saving the manatees and their habitat. “They deserve to be here just as much as we do.”
It is easy to feel overwhelmed by such a colossal problem. Nothing makes us feel quite so humble or helpless as staring down an environmental disaster with no simple solutions.
“It’s the little things that matter,” Berchem said. “I think if everyone would just make these little changes, it could have a really, really big effect.”
These little changes include raising awareness of the manatees’ plight, holding organizations accountable for their actions impacting the environment, switching from septic to sewer, and avoiding the use of yard fertilizer.
Berchem encourages the public not to get swept up into a negative mindset about not being able to do enough. Small changes like the ones listed above may not sound like much, but Berchem remains convinced of their effectiveness.
“If you and your neighbor and your whole town does it, it will actually make a difference,” she said.
Back at Blue Spring State Park, guests remain transfixed on the water, waiting for the long-anticipated moment when Plantaina will surface for air and provide the perfect photo opportunity. But Plantaina must like the attention, because she seems determined to draw it out.
“You have to be super-patient,” a park volunteer tells the guests.
It seems patience will be a constant factor in the lives of manatees over the next few years as individuals and organizations continue to raise awareness and design projects to help the manatees recover from the recent tragedy. It’s slow progress, but progress all the same.
Perhaps one day there will be no more need to worry over the safety of manatees like Plantaina. If the right minds come together to make a difference, we could see an entirely different world for the manatees. Until then, we’ll just have to be patient.
— Editor’s note: Jaylen Walton is a second-year student at Stetson University. She wrote this for her final assignment this semester in an investigative-journalism class taught by The Beacon’s Eli Witek.