Pollution from homes and businesses is feeding algae and causing manatees to starve. (Unsplash/Maegan Luckiesh)

In Florida, USA, seagrass — the primary food source for manatees — is vanishing. As a result, for the first time, officials are feeding manatees lettuce as part of a gargantuan effort to save the suffering mammoth mammals that are crucial to marine ecosystems.

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According to ABC News, seagrass has been devastated in the 156-mile-long Indian River Lagoon and neighboring areas. “It thrives in clear, sandy water, but algae and pollutants have made it harder for seagrass to survive,” Melissa Tucker, director of the Division of Habitat and Species Conservation at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, told ABC News.

In 2021, Florida lost 12 percent — 1,100 overall — of its manatee population.

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Seagrass meadows are among the most important features in any coastal ecosystem, as they prevent erosion, clean the water, and provide shelter for fish. And for a wide range of species, including manatees, seagrass is their food.

For their part, manatees are also a vital component of the marine ecosystem. Without manatees to eat large quantities of seagrass, the vegetation would become obstructive to waterways and the mosquito population would increase.

Manatees do not harm any other organisms and have no immediate predators, so the health of their population is only affected by that of their habitat. If manatees were to go extinct, scientists would lose a major indicator for studying the health of that ecosystem.

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Sadly, manatees are just one of the thousands of species in God’s creation that are suffering like never before, with the raging climate emergency and biodiversity crisis. That’s why all people of goodwill are encouraged to unite and sign the Healthy Planet, Healthy People petition.

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At the United Nation’s Biodiversity Conference later this year in China, world leaders will come together to set ambitious targets that protect our common home. You’re encouraged to speak up for the most vulnerable members of God’s creation and our entire common home by signing the Healthy Planet, Healthy People petition.

 Though the manatee is Florida’s state mammal and has been protected by numerous acts since 1972, their mass die-off signals a problem that plagues ocean environments everywhere, not just in the U.S.: coastal development and pollution. 

Decades of human impacts have weakened the entire ecosystem, making manatees far more vulnerable to threats — in this case, an algae plague that depletes the beloved sea mammal’s food supply and red tide blooms that release nerve toxins that can paralyze and suffocate manatees.

Recently, conservation groups have sued the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), accusing it of approving Florida’s water-quality standards despite “extensive evidence of that harmful pollution and Florida’s failure to address it.” The latest lawsuit challenges the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s inaction regarding the clean-water standards that are tragically failing manatees.

State Representative Thad Altman (Republican) pointed out that, “Restoration is not working because the water quality that killed the seagrasses to begin with is still there.”  In an interview with Florida Politics, he added, “They’ve lost their food source, it’s as simple as that…that’s our state mammal, the manatee. To let that go extinct would be unconscionable.”

As Pope Francis wrote in Laudato Si’, “Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right” (LS 33).  

The World Wildlife Fund estimates that at least 10,000 species go extinct every year. We have an urgency to heed the cry of the earth and take action now to care for creation. 

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Due to nutrient pollution causing algae blooms, thousands of acres of seagrass in Florida have died, leaving manatees without an adequate food source.