Make Manatees Great Again

By Toryn Whitehead

Our weather is becoming more extreme and destructive. Consequently, decades of work to reverse man-made damage to the Everglades, a vast, fragile ecosystem in South Florida is being undermined. As well as the flora and fauna, humans will be on the endangered list if we do not act now.

Florida manatees play an important role in the ecosystem of the Everglades. They graze on more than 65 species of aquatic plants and grasses which is vital in ensuring that waterways are not obstructed by the overgrowth of vegetation. Furthermore, their large size means they heavily influence the structure and function of their environments; allowing them to act as indicators of the ecological health of these environments. Although manatee numbers have slowly improved since the turn of the century, climate change poses a new and more significant threat than ever before.

Climate change is causing increased surface water temperatures that produce more severe hurricanes and toxic red algae blooms, killing a large number of manatees. Additionally, cold snaps which see water temperatures fall significantly are becoming more frequent. This forces manatees further inland in an attempt to avoid cold-related mortality, increasing the likelihood of coming into contact with humans. This is particularly dangerous at a time where boating in Florida is at an all-time high. Boating collisions kill approximately 87 manatees annually, impairing the species recovery as a result.

Climate change is also having a significant impact on the manatees habitat: the Everglades. Sea-level rise is causing the salinization of fresh water habitats, groundwater and the soils above. As a result many of the rare and endangered plants found in the Everglades are suffering, causing the biodiversity of the ecosystem to dwindle. This is significant not just for the flora and fauna of the Everglades, but for humans too. Our two worlds may seem separate, but in fact we are deeply connected. The importance of our relationship with nature has perhaps never held as much weight as now.

Figure 1. Manatees and other sea life absorb the algae toxins through their skin, inhale them when they breathe, and eat plants that have the toxins on them.

Yin and Yang

Like Yin and Yang, humans and nature are interdependent on one another. We only successfully coexist by maintaining balance in our relationship. The recent ecological genocide of our planet is worrying, we are sleep walking into a disaster. Florida is an excellent case study for this. The degradation of the Everglades will further worsen our relationship with nature, fuelling the climate change crisis. A 2017 Cornell University study predicts that “nearly 2 million Floridians will be forced from their homes by 2100 because of climate-induced rising seas.” This includes the likely loss of the cities of Miami and West Palm Beach. America’s era of mass climate refugees is here, and the economic and social impact will be enormous.

As well as this, Florida’s fresh water supplies are severely threatened. Rising sea levels, reduced rainfall and over pumping of groundwater from aquifers are all contributing to the salinization of Florida’s fresh water. The Florida department of environmental protection has warned that “existing sources of water will not adequately meet the reasonable beneficial needs for the next 20 years.” Furthermore, the encroaching saltwater has also been detrimental to local ecosystems. Big Pine Key, a vital deer habitat, has suffered immensely. This suffering has been made worse by the fact that Florida sits at the end of the Atlantic Ocean’s “hurricane alley”. Scientists have shown that climate change is causing hurricanes to be more frequent and severe. As well as the economic and social turmoil following Hurricane Irma in 2017, nearly 30% of the trees on Big Pine Key died.

The Everglades, the Great Florida Reef and all the flora and fauna are essential to the systems that restore and protect Florida. These ecosystems degradation will therefore only speed up the impact climate change is having on urban and other human spaces. More frequent and extreme hurricanes, the salinization of Florida’s fresh water, and the rapidly rising sea level is predicted to create 2 million climate refugees by the end of the century. Globally reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is a big piece in the puzzle to solving Florida’s climate crisis, but action must also be taken locally, and nature must be put first.

The Political Barrier

Politics has been one of the main barriers for nature and environmental activists to overcome in recent years in America. According to a new survey from Florida Atlantic University 86% of Floridians agree climate change is happening. But despite this, in the recent US election Florida voted for Donald Trump. A man who does not believe in climate change, and took America out of The Paris Agreement. However, only 69% of Democrat voters and just 44% of Republican voters in Florida say that climate change is a result of human activities. So perhaps it is not surprising that voters favour politicians that support fossil fuel consumption, since they do not view ‘human activity’ as a cause of the problem.

Rick Scott, Florida’s governor from 2011-2019 became known as “Red Tide Rick“, for his perceived lack of action over toxic red algae blooms in 2018. Additionally, he cut Florida’s water management budget by $700 million, rolled back environmental regulations and failed to stop the expansion of offshore oil drilling. The new administration led by Gov. Ron DeSantis has shown signs of improvement. The recent state budget included $650 million for Everglades restoration and water management projects. As well as this, DeSantis appointed Florida’s first chief science officer and struck a deal to prevent drilling in parts of the Everglades. This clearly demonstrates progress, but is it too little too late?

Restoring the Balance

Despite the failure of politicians to tackle climate change, this hasn’t stopped locals, businesses, and organisations. The Sierra Club is an environmental organisation that champions solutions to the climate crisis, with chapters in all 50 states. As a result of their work, 10 of Florida’s cities have committed to transitioning to 100% clean renewable energy. This is among many other issues they are helping Floridians to tackle; including the controversial bill that has fast-tracked three major new toll roads that will severely degrade Florida’s natural environment. On top of this, local work by the Southeast Florida Climate Compact is helping residents and companies see the business case for tackling climate change. This helped to increase local support for climate initiatives and in turn encouraged people to read more and educate themselves about the problem.

Florida, like all of us, is starting to wake up and realise the threat. Nature must be at the centre of any plans to tackle climate change. Increasing manatee numbers, increasing the biodiversity of the Everglades and giving nature the space to flourish will only benefit Florida. Floridians will be better protected from the threats of climate change whilst also tackling the root cause of the crisis. Helping to contribute towards a healthy, sustainable future where humans are not added to the endangered list.

Graphic courtesy of Alice Eaves