A healthy manatee drifts under dock in Vero Beach, FL amidst reflections of boats on lifts. Disappearing seagrass causing a feeding crisis for manatees is farther up the east coast near Merritt Island. FIConservancy Photo.

Manatees are starving to death in Florida. These gentle giants, weighing up to 1200 pounds, feed almost exclusively on seagrass and eat 9 percent of their body weight everyday.

Seagrass has long been in trouble in Florida’s increasingly polluted Indian River Lagoon Estuary. But scientists say that this year, in main manatee feeding areas, there’s almost no seagrass left for these herbivores to eat, causing them to become “severely emaciated” and die.

Fishers Island seagrass does not have to support the voracious appetites of manatees, but “our” seagrass forms the base of a highly productive marine food web, providing foraging areas and shelter for young fish and invertebrates, and food for migratory waterfowl and sea turtles.

This unique habitat also improves water quality by filtering polluted runoff, absorbing excess nutrients, storing greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, and trapping sediment, reducing the force of wave energy, thereby reducing coastal erosion.

Fishers Island has 94 percent of the remaining eelgrass in New York waters of Long Island Sound and 25 percent of all eelgrass in the Sound. (Eelgrass is a form of seagrass and gets its name from its long, eel-like leaves.)

Decimation of once abundant and protective eelgrass meadows in Long Island Sound, prompted The Nature Conservancy to evaluate eelgrass areas and boating patterns around Fishers Island. The study concluded that boating activity, particularly in summer months, presents a grave threat to Fishers Island eelgrass meadows.

The Fishers Island Seagrass Management coalition has been working to raise awareness about the serious threat to seagrass, and to designate seagrass management areas (SMA) to guide and balance effective use and protection of seagrass ecosystems around Fishers Island.

The loss of seagrass along any shore, whether through pollution or summer boating, is a recipe for irreparable environmental harm.

Changes in eelgrass distribution around Fishers Island from 2012 to 2017, published Feb. 28, 2019 in The Nature Conservancy report: An Evaluation of Eelgrass Extent and Vessel Use Patterns Around Fishers Island, New York.