Loss of Coastal Plants Threatens Florida Jobs and Environment

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St Johns River Water Management District headquarters in Palatka.  Photo by Jim Tatum.

 

This was probably not foremost in the author’s mind, but the title of this article exemplifies our thought in Florida–jobs first and environment second.

And that is always so.

Irony is also present here in that these two researchers, Lori Morris and Lauren Hall, are employees of the St Johns River Water Management District, puppet  agency of our Department of Environmental Protection Agency. 

In case it is not obvious, the irony lies in that these agencies are those responsible for the current situation in which our waters are going step by step downward into hell.  Their failure results from their inaction to take the necessary steps to protect our waters from pollution.

Our agencies  spend millions but are very careful not to offend agriculture and other polluters.

Note if you will that the article cites septic tanks, lawn fertilizers and development as causes for the problem. The Florida Springs Council recently published the the statewide pollution percentages for pollution sources and they are: urban fertilizer, 12%; wastewater treatment, 4.62%; septics, 12%; and agriculture, 70.3 %.  

And, the amount allocated to fixing agriculture pollution was ZERO.   Yes, some funds were allocated for AG, but only for acquisition of lands, nothing for addressing pollution.

Why?  Our DEP is afraid of AG and its pushback.

Here is a link to the Gainesville Sun.

Act NOW!*

Put the Right to Clean Water Amendment on the 2022 ballot

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Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
[email protected]
– A river is like a life: once taken,
it cannot be brought back © Jim Tatum


Loss of Coastal Plants Threatens Florida Jobs and Environment

 

Loss of coastal plants threatens Florida jobs and environment

Florida Today | USA TODAY NETWORK – FLORIDA
September 7, 2021

MERRITT ISLAND – Seagrass — the linchpin of Florida’s coastal marine food web — is dying throughout the Sunshine State, with decades of progress wilting away seemingly overnight, taking many livelihoods with it. h Take the Indian River Lagoon, once among the most ecologically and economically significant estuaries in the United States. Here in one of the lagoon’s remotest spots, near the local Florida Power & Light power plant, Lori Morris and Lauren Hall plunge waist-deep into cloudy green water. They seek seagrass. What they find is a barren sandy bottom, a conch or two, and some limp seaweed.

Environmental scientist Lauren Hall, with the St. Johns Water Management District, ventures out into the Indian River Lagoon near the Pine Island Conservation Area on Merritt Island looking for seagrass in a marked area that the district has been monitoring for years. 

“It used to be the winter salad bar (here),” said Morris of the underwater desert she and Hall — both environmental scientists with the St. Johns River Water Management District — had just examined.

Until a few years ago, this Pine Island Conservation Area was where manatees feasted as the FPL plant’s cooling-water discharge kept them warm. Now the manatees hereare starving to death as seagrass festers, dies and then rots into fodder for algae.

Morris and Hall are among some 40 scientists from stare agencies who map seagrass. In recent years, those maps show seagrass receding in every coastal corner of Florida, at levels seldom if ever seen before.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission‘s most recent report on seagrass documented 2,480,000 acres of seagrass in Florida’s nearshore waters, most in southern Florida (1,620,000 acres) and in the Big Bend and Springs Coast region (618,000 acres). But losses were significant.

It found that since 2012, storm runoff fed algae blooms that harmed seagrass beds in the Panhandle, the Big Bend, southwest Florida, and along the east coast from Biscayne Bay to the northern Indian River Lagoon. Specifically it showed that:

h Indian River Lagoon lost 58% of its seagrass area since 2009, more than 46,000 acres, with 90% less grass coverage in most areas. As a result, a record 912 manatees — 317 of them in Brevard County — have died statewide this year, most from starvation..

h Tampa Bay lost 13% of its seagrass, more than 5,400 acres, according to the Southwest Florida Water Management District, and Sarasota Bay lost 18% of its seagrass between 2018 and 2020, more than 2.300 acres.

h Charlotte Harbor, formerly one of the bright spots in Florida, with seagrass increasing or stable, in just two years lost three decades worth of grass grow-back, more than 4,500 acres (23%). Nearby Lemon Bay also lost about 12% of its seagrasses since 2018, according to the water management district.

h In South Florida, seagrass was stable until the summer of 2015 when as many as 10,000 acres died in western Florida Bay.

The underwater scenes look similar around the state: Once football fieldsized grass beds now resemble moonscapes. Bottom plants wilted away under the leaks and runoff from septic tanks, lawn fertilizers and unchecked coastal development Lush grass beds became mud flats in Matlacha Pass in Lee County, as runoff from Lake Okeechobee chokes estuaries coast to coast.

Meanwhile, local governments dump millions of gallons of raw sewage into Tampa Bay, Indian River Lagoon and estuaries statewide as millions of septic tanks seep even more nitrogen and phosphorus to fuel excess algae that kills bottom grass in turn feeding more algae blooms in a vicious death spiral.

The losses have wiped out decades of progress. Using available data — a hodgepodge of varying efforts statewide — researchers estimate more than 2.5 million acres of seagrass remains in Florida’s nearshore waters, which provide so-called “ecological services” worth more than $20 billion a year. Some economists think those dollars might be much higher. Just 2 1/ 2 acres of seagrass supports up to 100,000 fish, 100 million invertebrates like worms, clams and snails, and up to $10,000 in economic activity, according to the St. Johns River Water Management District. Those who spend lifetimes in the thick of the seagrass of old see what’s being lost as way beyond just dollars. So reporters with USA TODAY NETWORKFlorida met with them. These are their stories.

A quarter century snorkeling the seagrass

In the Indian River Lagoon, just off Pine Island, a pair of juvenile bottlenose dolphin pop their dorsal fins above the surface, a good sign of life. But scientists find lagoon dolphin are thinner these days.

It’s only waist deep here: perfect depth for sunlight to penetrate and seagrass to prosper but it doesn’t.

“It’s just bare,” Hall said, emerging from the lagoon with a blue snorkel and mask. She records measurements of grass they see within PVC-framed onesquare- meter grids called quadrats.

“It’s just not much to count,” Hall says.

There are white PVC poles every 100 meters to mark the grass that once was.

The water looks a diluted pea-soup green. An algae that glows like fairy dust when stirred at night is mostly what’s at play. It’s called Pyrodinium. Sometimes it turns marine life toxic, like in 2003, when at least 28 people got sick from eating pufferfish caught in the lagoon.

Even areas that once had the thickest grass beds now are barren, such as nearby Kennedy Space Center It’s a protected area free of the urban runoff that chokes out grass beds elsewhere. (Houses and businesses can’t be near rocket launch pads). But the remote nature doesn’t seem to be helping Mother Nature, lately.

“We’ve seen the losses just as substantial in that area,” Hall said. “There’s really almost no grass left in that northern Banana River area.”

The same has held true near Sebastian Inlet, where better mixing with ocean water sustained seagrass in the past. Some advocates keep lobbying for new or wider inlets. Hall says that won’t work.

“The inlet in and of itself is not going to solve the problems,” Hall said.

The tattoo of the Empire State Building on her shoulder signals Hall’s Bronx upbringing. This city girl grew up to be an environmental scientist, now literally knee deep in the lagoon’s demise. She’s been peering into the lagoon for 25 years.

What she sees today is a much balder, patchier “lagoon-scape” than in 1996, when she began snorkeling the estuary’s grass beds for the water management district. She no longer sees seahorses and spider crabs. But it’s hard to say for sure that they are gone, she said, because: “Most of those things just swim away when I’m in the water, so I don’t get to put my eyes on them.”

Hall jumps in the lagoon, wearing a black wetsuit. She reemerges after a few minutes, her brown hair dripping with the brackish lagoon water that some now fear. Some don’t trust going in the lagoon anymore among whatever septic tanks and sewage plants leak out.

“We’ve lost interns,” Morris said. “Not everybody will stick their face in that water.”

Others have lost their lives, as a bacteria called Vibrio vulnificus, loosely linked with increased storm water runoff, has entered their open wounds or scratches.

Empty squares of seagrass

Back in the Indian River Lagoon, just south of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Charles Jacoby, a senior scientist with the water management district, watches from the boat.

Hall and Morris check these transects twice a year. Most of what’s left here is shoal grass — not ideal. “It’s pret-

ty resilient but it’s not one of the pioneers,” Jacoby said, referring to the seagrass species that set the substrate that helps other grass species establish.

Seagrasses are opportunistic. As anywhere plants compete, they shade each other out. They have rhizomes. They have pollen. “They are basically land plants that came back to the water,” Jacoby explained.

But they haven’t been able to adapt to the stark changes humans inflicted, biologists say. They adapted to hurricanes but not to the sewage spills, or the boats that carve up their surroundings.

Boat scars can injure seagrass beds, sometimes long-term, if cut deep enough. Not here, not anymore: “There’s nothing to scar,” Morris said.

She and Hall count grass shoots, this day only finding a few.

Morris swims for a while, searching the bottom she knows so well but no longer recognizes. She surfaces.

“There’s nothing,” she says.

She dives back down and resurfaces with a finger-sized crown conch. Those are tough.

“It’s depressing,” says Morris, sitting back in the water district’s boat.

Another leafier plant — Caulerpa algae — now dominates where seagrass once grew. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, Hall explained. It can stabilize the sediment, enabling seagrass to take root.

“We’re hoping that the Caulerpa is going to help matters and not hurt matters,” she said.

Manatees had to switch their diet from seagrass to Caulerpa, with uncertain health consequences. The Caulerpa in the lagoon is not known to be toxic, but biologists suspect it might be changing the healthy mix of flora and fauna in the sea cows’ digestive tracts, triggering illness and maybe even death. And manatees don’t like it much.

At meetings with other resource scientists and managers, Morris for years kept asking about what she saw in the field and wondered about dolphins and manatees.

“We knew it was coming,” Morris said. “They had to be getting skinnier. I’d say, ‘guys, what are they eating?’” She’s still asking.

— Jim Waymer, FLORIDA TODAY

It’s not just manatees

Captain Paul Fafeita begins every fishing charter by repeating the same warning to customers who return yearly to fish in the Indian River Lagoon.

“It’s not as nice as it was last year,“ he warns. “We’re going to catch less fish.”

Fafeita, a Vero Beach-based fishing guide from Indian River County, has boated in the 156-mile lagoon since 1960 and led private fishing trips for the last 17 years. He witnessed a gradual ecological decline of one of North America’s most biodiverse coastal estuaries, and with it, the downfall of several species of fish.

“There was an abundance of seagrass. I mean there were just football fields full of seagrass everywhere,” Fafeita said. “And now it looks like the moon. It’s sickening.”

The 71-year-old recently participated in speckled seatrout tournament in Martin County’s southern stretch of the lagoon. Of the 66 anglers in the 10-hour competition, just two size-legal seatrout were bagged, Fafeita said.

In the 1970s, similar tournaments would hook over 100 trout, Fafeita said.

The drop-off of the seatrout is directly linked to seagrass loss, biologists say, as they are one of the species most dependent on grass beds to hide, feed and breed.

In the counties that house the waterway — Palm Beach, Martin, St Lucie, Indian River, Brevard and Volusia counties — seatrout catches dropped from 54,501 pounds in 2012 to 9,727 pounds in 2017, or a catch decline of 82%, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission data. Some of Fafeita’s friends threw in their nets and reels on commercial fishing careers. The cost of filling their boats with gas, paying for insurance and mechanical repairs outweigh their total seafood haul, he said.

As with many parts of Florida, grass clippings sent down storm drains resulted in seagrass spiraling down the death drain.

Nutrient-rich fertilizers, human waste and rotting plant matter entered the lagoon from decades of storm water runoff and leaky septic tanks. Florida is home to roughly 2.6 million septic systems, about 12% of the nation’s total.

Those closest to coastal waters contribute to the sharp decline in seagrass as nutrients fuel algae blooms that deplete the lagoon bottom of oxygen and sunlight. He laments the almost 1,000 people on average now moving to Florida daily, he said, dousing his memories of the lagoon.

— Max Chesnes, environment reporter, TCPalm

Vanished before his eyes

John Whiticar, 70, of Jensen Beach grew up along the Indian River Lagoon, the son of a Stuart boatbuilder. His family’s livelihood centered on fishing, so he grew up appreciating the importance of its crystal-clear waters.

Then he watched as the nursery habitat so vital for fish, crustaceans and mollusks simply vanished before his eyes. While manatees get most of the attention, concern and dollars, Whiticar sees other species dying as well.

“Those of us who used to walk and fish in almost knee-high seagrass know about all of the critters and other plants and algae that live on the grass,” he said via email.

Mostly, he blames us for letting it happen and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for its decades of huge releases of farm runoff from Lake Okeechobee.

As an instructor with the Environmental Studies Center in Jensen Beach in the 1970s, Whiticar took school children out in the lagoon with seine nets in the grass beds. “We discovered the ‘Who’s Who’ of what lives in the river. Little clams and oysters, seahorses and pipefish, snook, baby lobsters, baby just about every other kind of fish,” Whitcar said. “Pinfish, a favorite food for many grown fish were caught by the hundreds. Little snappers, grunts, barracudas, and an occasional octopus. All these things are gone.”

Even in his car, he’s reminded of what once was.

“It saddens my soul to drive along Indian River Drive now and just see brown silty sand bars where there used to be seagrass,” Whiticar said.

We have killed the Indian River in less than 10 years. Shame on us and shame on the Army Corps of Engineers.”

— Ed Killer, outdoors columnist, TCPalm

Gulf side led the way, now in same boat

On the Gulf Coast, seagrass is giving way to much tinier plants: the singlecelled plants like red tide.

The past two years proved brutal on seagrass in Southwest Florida, mapping surveys show.

Between 2018 and 2020, Sarasota Bay lost 18% of its seagrass, or 2,313 acres, according to preliminary research by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. It’s a percentage scientists haven’t seen in decades.

As elsewhere in Florida, it’s the same old story: excess nutrients from septic tanks, sewage spills and fertilizers feeding algae blooms that choke out seagrass.

Then in March, nitrogen- and phosphorus-laded wastewater flowed into Tampa Bay from the former Piney Point fertilizer processing plant.

The water released through the Port of Manatee at a rate of about 11,000 gallons per minute, or more than an estimated 14 million gallons a day, to relieve pressure on the walls of a giant containment reservoir at Piney Point, according to Florida Department of Environmental Protection  documents.

Boats have played a role, too. Matlacha Pass in Lee County has experienced among most severe damage.

In these two regions, 21,507 acres of seagrass beds have been scarred by propellers.  At the mouth of Caloosahatchee River.

“The goal of our organization is to disband. You want the problem to be gone, but I think that’s just wishful thinking.” Daniel Andrews, Lee County Daniel Andrews grew up fishing the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River and all the lush seagrass there two decades ago.

A Fort Myers native, Andrews fished with his family though his college years and decided to become a guide in 2012.

Now 30, Andrews helped form the powerhouse nonprofit called Captains for Clean Water.

For him, losing seagrass in the mouth of the Caloosahatchee didn’t just change his weekend or vacation plans. It changed the entire direction of his life.

“I used to be a fishing guide,” Andrews said. “But due to the loss of habitat, mostly seagrass around here I didn’t think, as a 25-year-old, that I had a sustainable future as a fisherman, so that’s why I’m involved with Captains for Clean Water now.”

Andrews didn’t fish the estuary during its prime as the damage had already shrunk much of the area’s seagrass by the time he was 5.

High volume discharges from Lake Okeechobee and the eastern part of the watershed last for months at a time.

It’s happened several times over the past few decades, and the seagrass has never had a chance to recover.

The estuary gets blown 15 miles into the Gulf of Mexico, so it suffers tremendously for long periods of time.

Andrews recalls as a child each Lake O release how the mouth of the river would shed blades of grass and eventually die if the salt levels failed to return to normal.

“So that area just keeps spreading further and further out from the river. Really between Punta Rassa, Sanibel and St. James City, that was the only area I fished as a kid and the seagrass is gone now.”

He said the fishing was really good 15 or 20 years ago.

But as more grass was lost, Andrews had to find other areas to fish, places like Pine Island Sound farther to the north.

Nowadays, instead of taking clients out to fish, Andrews spends much of his time meeting politicians and water management agencies officials.

“The recovery of seagrass has to come from proper water management,” he said. “So it doesn’t make sense to do plantings right now because we need to fix the water now. And if we have perfect conditions it may take a decade to come back.”

He still lives in Fort Myers and hopes one day that seagrass in the estuary will return.

“You want the problem to be gone, but I think that’s just wishful thinking,” he said.

— Chad Gillis, (Fort Myers) News-Press

Poor waters dash lifelong dreams

Karl Deigert dreamed of owning a waterfront hotel in Matlacha and treating his guests to boat tours. But failing water quality killed that dream, forcing him to sell his interest in the Angler’s Inn.

Since 2016, he’s watched algal mats choke out sunlight to the seagrass below, leaving a mudflat.

“Basically, it’s just become a bottom desert.”

While he has not come across emaciated manatees in Southwest Florida, the images from the east coast are alarming, he said.

“I watched Florida die and it’s not a pretty sight,” Deigert said.

He continues his water tours in Matlacha, but senses pending economic collapse.

“The backbone of Florida’s economy is built on clean water,” he said. “Until we address the sources of nutrients, harmful algal blooms will continue to smother seagrass beds.”

— Karl Schneider, Environment reporter, Naples Daily News

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