Planting Hope for Florida Manatees

Seagrass-restoration projects may hold the key to saving Florida's gentle giant

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A manatee swims  over seagrass. Courtesy of Sea & Shoreline LLC
A manatee swims over seagrass. Courtesy of Sea & Shoreline LLC

The record-breaking number of Florida manatees that were reported dead throughout 2021 is 1,101, largely due to starvation caused by seagrass loss. For environmentalists across the state, the unprecedented mortality event was a call to action. The Treasure Coast Manatee Foundation and Manatee Observation and Education Center (MOEC) in Fort Pierce have met the call, teaming up to bring one acre of seagrass to Moore’s Creek this month, with a half-acre expansion set to be installed at the Fort Pierce Yacht Club later this year. 

“We’ll install native seagrass planting units in Moore’s Creek, and we’ll be protecting them with herbivory exclusion devices for about a year,” says Ryan Brushwood, lead biologist at Sea & Shoreline, an aquatic-restoration firm contracted by MOEC to install the seagrass. “We’ll be doing routine maintenance and monitoring for three years to make sure the plants have the best chance of survival.”

Caloosahatchee's new seagrass  plantings ready for installation
Caloosahatchee’s new seagrass plantings ready for installation.

The benefits of seagrass-restoration projects are endless: Seagrass provides food, habitat, and nursery areas for numerous species, and it cleans the surrounding water and helps take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Although vital, seagrass is not always the first thing to come to the public’s mind when advocating for the health of waterways. Luckily, manatees are the perfect mascot for the cause. “Manatees are a charismatic megafauna,” says MOEC Manager Rachel Tennant. “That means humans tend to identify with the species. We’re predisposed to care because we naturally take a liking to them.”

Manatee Observation and Education Center in Fort Pierce
Manatee Observation and Education Center in Fort Pierce

Local support for the project shows manatees have stolen the hearts of the Treasure Coast community, with close to $80,000 being donated by individuals and through other efforts such as a seagrass-dedicated cider release by Pierced Ciderworks and a silent auction featuring manatee artwork created by South Florida artists. It’s a reminder that when the community bands together, anything is possible. “There’s a tendency to feel overwhelmed, but there’s always something that can be done,” says Tennant. “We can do this—and we are doing it. It’s one step at a time.” 

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