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manatees munching seagrass

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park to Receive Natural Seagrass to feed its Manatees

By Diane Bedard Posted on December 9, 2021

A solution has been created to supply thousands of pounds of seagrass to feed the manatees being cared for and rehabilitated at the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park.

Seagrass naturally sheds blades of grass, much like trees shed their leaves in the winter. The seagrass, which can lose (and regrow) up to 80 percent of its biomass annually, floats to the top of the water. As an initiative of its “Seagrass Saves Sea Life” crusade, Sea & Shoreline will collect the seagrass from the Crystal River project and transport it to the state park weekly to feed captive manatees in the park’s care.

Sea & Shoreline was hired in 2015 to clean up the river’s bed, removing the invasive aquatic plants and restoring native sea grass, by a dedicated group of residents who formed a nonprofit, Save Crystal River. The pilot project was such a success that it has been recreated and extended through the area providing food for manatees and protection for fish and turtles. The goal is to plant over 90 acres of rockstar eelgrass in the area by 2023.

Lisa Moore, President of Save Crystal River, said, “There have been so many valuable results that have come out of the Kings Bay Restoration Project. We didn’t know we were going to find over 700 spring vents. And now we are helping to feed the manatees with excess. What a great success story!

Sea & Shoreline Workers to Collect and Deliver the Seagrass

Manatees are herbivores and typically eat 10-15 percent of their body weight in seagrass daily (approximately 80-150 pounds). The Park provides four daily feedings of two types of lettuce (romaine and escarole) to manatee resident and rehabilitation manatees in the park’s care. It is estimated that seagrass has significantly more calories and nutrients than lettuce.

planting eelgrass for manatees
Sea & Shoreline employees preparing to plant rockstar eelgrass in Crystal River, October 2020. Image by Diane Bedard.

Sea & Shoreline employees will harvest the seagrass from its largest seagrass restoration project in Crystal River, Florida. “There we have an abundance of over 200 acres of lush, restored seagrass where manatees are feasting,” says Henne.

According to Carter Henne, biologist and President of Sea & Shoreline, “This is a win/win for everyone. Our seagrass collection efforts will help feed the rescued manatees and transition them better into the wild where they will need to forage for seagrass; it will help offset the park’s costly lettuce budget which is expected to climb as they rehabilitate more manatees; and it removes floating seagrass from our local waterways where it could sink and compromise areas of successfully restored seagrass meadows.”

save crystal river boat tour
Members of the “Access to the River” committee taking a tour of the “Save Crystal River” project

Community Efforts brought Sea & Shoreline to the Nature Coast

Sea & Shoreline has been contracted by two non-profits, Save Crystal River and the Homosassa River Restoration Project, to restore seagrass in both rivers. The two rivers are connected to each other through the Gulf of Mexico which eliminates concerns of transferring seagrass from one water body to another.

This provisional feeding project is initially being funded through a grant from the California-based Nancy P. and Richard K. Robbins Foundation. “We see this as a necessary, immediate step on the path toward a long-term goal of creating a sustainable food solution for Florida’s starving manatee population,” said Richard K. Robbins.

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park Receives Seagrass to help Rehabilitate Sick and Injured Manatees

manatee
Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is part of the Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Partnership. Image courtesy of Pixabay.

As part of Florida State Parks, Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park features the first magnitude Homosassa Spring, which enables the park to serve as a rehabilitation partner in the Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Partnership. This partnership is a cooperative of agencies, organizations, and oceanaria that rescue, rehabilitate, release, and monitor Florida manatees.

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park receives rescued and rehabilitated manatees from partner facilities and park rangers care for them until they are released back into the wild.

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park currently has four manatees in its care (Betsy, Ariel, Hines, and Keeks), and may receive more as Florida’s East Coast manatee crisis continues. ‘Keeks’ is a 600-to-650-pound manatee who is being rehabilitated at the park for eventual release into the wild. The Rock Star eelgrass is a great natural food for him to get healthy with.

nature coast aquatic preserve area map
The Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve was approved in 2020, connecting over a million acres of saltwater seagrass meadows. Image courtesy of Pew Charitable Trusts.

The Nature Coast has an abundance (over a million acres) of natural saltwater seagrass beds from Tampa Bay up the Gulf Coast due to its extensive natural shoreline. This allows area manatees to eat all year long, providing plenty of fat stores to help them survive when entering rivers and freshwater areas to keep warm in colder months. Recently, the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve was created to help protect that shoreline.

Manatees typically lose a significant amount of body weight during their winter refuge, so it is important for them to be fat and healthy when they head toward Florida’s natural springs.

manatees in three sisters springs
Manatees in Three Sisters Springs. Image by Sally White

Seagrass Saves Aquatic Lives

With the tragic increase in manatee deaths in Florida this year, Sea & Shoreline is working closely with State agencies, water management districts, non-profits, and other stakeholders to create more projects that help marine life survive by reducing nutrient overloads, removing muck, and planting seagrass to restore aquatic habitats.

Sea & Shoreline has proven success in rehabilitating aquatic ecosystems in places such as Crystal River, Homosassa River, Lake Istokpoga, Caloosahatchee River, and St. Andrew Bay, and has successful demonstration projects in the Indian River Lagoon (Banana River and Fort Pierce Inlet State Park).

Earlier this year, the company celebrated a milestone by planting its one-millionth seagrass plant and by launching its newest crusade, “Seagrass Saves Sea Life,” to raise awareness and educate consumers and legislators about the critical environmental and ecological benefits of seagrass.

manatee and diver underwater crystal river
Manatee munching healthy eelgrass in Crystal River. Image courtesy of Hunter Springs Kayaks

Seagrass provides critical ecosystem services including:

  • water filtration and nutrient cycling to clean water bodies
  • provision of food, habitat, and protection for manatees, fish, turtles, and other sea life
  • sediment stabilization to provide resilient coastlines and storm protection, and
  • carbon sequestration to address climate change.

Could this be a Pilot Project to help Save Florida’s East Coast Manatees?

Because Florida’s East Coast has more beachfront, there is less saltwater seagrass to feed manatee populations year-round. As these thinner manatees head into winter quarters, up rivers and springs where the water is warmer and its seagrass less available, could discarded seagrass blades be provided to them?

The moving of these resources would be difficult and expensive. Kudos to the Sea & Shoreline team for thinking of harvesting and relocating the discarded seagrass in Crystal River to Homosassa. Because these two areas are connected by freshwater and Sea & Shoreline is working in both areas, transporting seems manageable. Still, it is impressive to see this type of innovative thinking!

seagrass project in Crystal River
Schoolchildren in Crystal River and Citrus County are an important part of saving Crystal River. From their initial 7,000 letters to bring the seriousness of the problem to Florida’s lawmakers to growing native eelgrass in each grade school classroom. Image courtesy of Save Crystal River.

The Crystal River project is their most successful environmental impact yet and Restore the Homosassa River is likely to have great success also. This is particularly due to residents, businesses, governments, and regional and state organizations banding together to fund the projects. Additional efforts were made to involve residents and youth with the goal of educating everyone on the value of having and keeping a healthy aquatic ecosystem. You can read about the Crystal River project here.

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