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NRCS Scientists Work in Partnership to Save Florida Manatees

Posted by Derric Cushman, Public Affairs Specialist, USDA Farm Production and Conservation Business Center in Conservation
Jun 23, 2021
A manatee
FWC Photo by Andy Wraithmell, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Did you know the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) soil scientists are playing an important role in saving Florida’s manatees?

These giant, but gentle, creatures are adored by residents and visitors to Florida. Unfortunately, though, their numbers have been threatened in recent years throughout the state.

Manatees in Florida’s Indian River Lagoon (IRL), which stretches 156 miles along Florida’s eastern coast, have been starving to death at an alarming rate over the last two years. These deaths can be attributed to a lack of seagrass, their main source of food, which is being affected by algal blooms.

As the algae blooms destroy seagrass beds, it causes sediment to float to the water’s surface. The water goes from clear to murky, making it harder for light to penetrate the water and provide sustenance to the seagrass. This creates a vicious cycle where more seagrass dies, more sunlight is blocked, and the manatees are left with less food to eat.

An initial visit with NRCS soil scientists

NRCS is part of a team working to address the challenge, along with St. Johns River Water Management District, the University of Florida, among many other national and state agencies.

The scientists go out on the IRL in pontoon boats and use sonar to conduct underwater soil surveys to gather information on the healthiest areas and the most degraded areas of the lagoon. The information is used to decide where to concentrate restoration efforts. This information has helped improve lagoons through actions like clams, oysters, and seagrass being deployed to aid in filtering and clearing the water. Scientists hope that continued improvement will eventually lead to the full restoration of manatees in the IRL.

Derric Cushman is a public affairs specialist with the USDA Farm Production and Conservation Business Center.

Soil Scientists Greg Taylor and Martin Figueroa coring the Banana River
Category/Topic: Conservation