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Environment

The Marine Resource Council calls for expanded testing in the Indian River Lagoon

Photo courtesy Marine Mammal Commission
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Marine Resource Council Executive Director Leesa Souto blames the lack of sea grass for last year's surge in manatee deaths. She is calling on state and local officials to fund a stepped up testing campaign of the water quality in the Indian River Lagoon to find out why the sea grass is not coming back.

Last year 1,001 manatees were found dead across the state. That number is about one-sixth of their estimated population in Florida. Half of the deaths occurred in the Indian River Lagoon. Souto believes the die-off has only gotten worse this year. She cites figures from the state reporting deaths between January 1 and February 25. During a March 10 webinar announcing the MRC's annual report card on the health of the Lagoon Souto said “Sadly, from January to the current (February 25), we’re losing manatees at a rate much higher than we did last year."

 Image shows location of manatee carcass recovery locations. Note that large areas of the Indian River Lagoon are colored in yellow which indicates a "dense" recovery area where there were a high number of manatee deaths.
Image Courtesy Marine Resource Council
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Image shows location of manatee carcass recovery locations. Note that large areas of the Indian River Lagoon are colored in yellow which indicates a "dense" recovery area where there were a high number of manatee deaths.

"This is not accurate," said Carli Segelson, Communications Director for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "If you look at the mortality information from last year at this time we had about 425 manatee mortalities whereas this year we have about 420." Souto responded that she was speaking about the deaths in the Indian River Lagoon only and she cited the FWC statistics from January 1 through Feb 25.

The MRC Report Card found modest improvement to the water quality of the Lagoon but a continued decline in sea grass growth, and they don’t know what’s causing that.

"We are losing our beloved manatee, and sea turtles, and fish, some of the things that people come here for," said Souto. “There might be something in the water column that could be impacting sea grass. It’s critically important that we find out what that is." The solution said Souto is to do more testing. Currently the state only tests for nitrogen, phosphorous, chlorophyll-a, and turbidity. No testing is done for herbicides, PFAS and other chemicals.

"We know PFAS is in the sea grass, and we know PFAS is in manatees," said Souto. Herbicide use has increased six to eight fold in the past 10 years. "It makes sense that if we are spraying all our canals with herbicides, its getting into the Lagoon and could be effecting sea grass health."

“We need to immediately start doing that, fund and mobilize citizen scientists to collect and test for pesticides and herbicides, so we can find those sources and stop it," said Souto.

MRC has dubbed their call for expanded testing "One Thousand Points of Life". Souto estimated that public volunteers could take as many as 1,000 samples annually from the 10 major tributaries feeding the Lagoon and then have those samples analyzed by state labs.

"We need to keep moving forward to expand water quality testing in the Indian River Lagoon," said Souto, "so we can understand what's going on with this sea grass loss."

Copyright 2022 WQCS. To see more, visit WQCS.

Corrected: March 21, 2022 at 12:08 PM EDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of manatee deaths has doubled in the last year.
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