Every day, Tiffany Menichetti walks her dog, Harley, along the Indian Creek canal in Miami Beach and picks up the trash she finds washed up along the waterway. Last week, she invited her friend Mariajose Algarra to join her because the canal was "extra trashy."
Menichetti and her neighbors have become accustomed to seeing groups of manatees swimming in the canal. That Friday afternoon, March 5, she and Algarra spotted one of the manatees chomping on some sea grass that had accumulated under someone's boat.
"Munch away, friend," Menichetti can be heard saying on a video of the encounter posted on Instagram.
The video then shows the manatee trying to eat one of several plastic bottle caps that were floating along with the sea grass.
"No, not the bottle cap!" Menichetti yelled.
Spooked, the manatee sank back underwater. Menichetti extended a pool net into the water and scooped up the pieces of plastic.
"I think it heard me," she tells New Times.
Algarra, a founder of the environmental group Clean This Beach Up, posted the video on her organization's Instagram page. For nearly two years, she has used social media to bring awareness to the volume of trash in Miami waterways and how it affects marine life. She has posted photos and videos of turtles enmeshed in fishing wire, manatees swimming in water covered in floating garbage, and a dead fish tangled in the ear loops of a facemask. Most recently, she posted the manatee video in hopes of drawing attention to the dangers the majestic mammals face.
"Our wildlife deserve better," Algarra says. "Not only do they swim in our filth, they also eat it."
Oceana, an international organization focused on ocean conservation, published a report in 2019 showing that 700 Florida manatees ingested or became entangled in plastic between 2009 and 2018. Of those, 99 percent were found to have swallowed plastic.
"In addition to those reported here, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has examined thousands of manatees and found that between 10% and 12% had ingested or become entangled in plastic," according to the report.
Plastics can be harmful to marine life, and this isn't the first time Algarra and Menichetti have seen marine life consume things that are unsafe for them. Earlier this week, while recording another manatee munching on sea grass, they saw the animal also swallow floating bits of Styrofoam in the water. The particles were small but numerous.
During their cleanups, Menichetti and Algarra regularly find plastic bags, straws, bottles and caps, glass, Champagne corks, cigar tips, Styrofoam, paper products, and more recently, disposable masks and gloves. They say it's concerning that people don't think of animals when they litter, go out on the water, or leave behind trash on the beach.
"As an individual or even an organization, we can only do so much, and we are just putting Band-Aids on the problem of plastic pollution and littering," Menichetti says. "The change that really has to happen is with people's mindsets and everyday choices that they make. Until then, we'll just have to keep trying to save one manatee at time."
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