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In a year of crisis for Florida’s manatees, eelgrass restoration makes Crystal River a lifesaver.

“How amazing is this?” cries Maria Fuller to her toddler as they paddle over a field of rich green eelgrass swaying just below the surface of Crystal River’s Kings Bay. “It’s so clear!”

Maria and Sean are young RV Living Vloggers featuring travels with their kids on the YouTube Channel The Fuller Life. Snorkelling underwater, they see a manatee mother and calf feeding nearby in a solid bed of eelgrass.

“There were literally manatees everywhere,” says Sean.

On Florida’s Gulf Coast, Crystal River may seem like paradise to many, but if you’re a manatee, it really is.

“The population in Crystal River and Kings Bay is doing quite well,” says Justin Grubich of Pew Research’s work on seagrasses in Florida. “The restoration work efforts with eelgrasses goes a long way toward supporting a healthy manatee population.”

But elsewhere in Florida, all is not well in manatee land. In fact, if you care about manatees, 2021 is a year you might want to forget.

Manatee fatalities, particularly along the Atlantic Coast, were devastating. Statewide the manatee mortality rate was 1,003 by December, a record that is twice the five-year average and amounts to, at the very least, one-tenth of the state’s manatee population.

The key driver of this manatee apocalypse: the loss of saltwater seagrasses and their freshwater cousins, eelgrasses.

“I’ve been struck by the contrast between Kings Bay and those places,” says the University of Florida’s Roger Reep, one of Florida’s foremost manatee experts. “It’s like night and day.”

So why are the Crystal River and Homosassa populations thriving while other manatees are dying? It’s all about grass.

First, there’s the newly created Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve just offshore in one of North America’s richest ecological treasures.

“There’s no hyperbole here,” says Justin Grubich, “The seagrasses of the Nature Coast and the Big Bend is the largest spring-fed seagrass meadow in the world and at this time the healthiest and most pristine there is in the United States.”

Second, restoration work inland along Crystal River’s Kings Bay has paid off.

In 2015, with funding from the Florida Legislature, the group Save Crystal River began a pilot project to try and restore eelgrass—a once dominant native vegetation—to Kings Bay. At first, there was doubt it could work. Then came success.

“I’m amazed by how it has spread throughout the bay,” says Roger Reep. “The eelgrass came back in leaps and bounds and it’s just been wildly more successful than anybody would have predicted.”

The process is intricate and time-consuming. It starts with literally vacuuming up dead vegetation that settled on the bay floor over many years to expose Kings Bay’s natural sandy floor.
Then, by hand, divers plant plugs of a unique species of freshwater eelgrass developed at the University of Florida that tolerates salinity.

The project includes ninety-two acres, and now a similar effort is underway on the Homosassa River.

“Instead of algae slime, the bay began getting clear again,” says Save Crystal River’s Lisa Moore, “it’s getting healthy again and eelgrass is growing like crazy.”

“It’s sort of a sweet spot,” says Roger Reep, “it doesn’t just benefit the manatees, it benefits everyone.”

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