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Over 1,000 manatees have died in Florida waters this year, according to state data released Wednesday.
It’s already a record-setting number, with six weeks still left in the year and experts bracing for more starvation as the weather turns colder. Manatees will soon gather around unnatural warm-water sources, like power plants, where food is scarce.
At least 1,003 manatees have died through Nov. 12, according to the latest Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission data. In July, Florida surpassed the previous single-year record of 830 manatee deaths set in 2013.
This year’s unprecedented die-off saw its peak between January and April, according to Martine deWit, the state veterinarian who leads the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute’s necropsy lab in St. Petersburg.
Over 650 carcasses were documented on the Atlantic Coast through Nov. 5, with roughly 85% of them in the first four months of this year, deWit told TCPalm
February was the deadliest month, when at least 230 deaths were verified in a 28-day span, according to FWC data. That equates to over eight per day.
Most manatees found dead in Brevard
Manatees have fared worst along the east coast, where one-fifth of the population likely was lost this year. Brevard County’s stretch of the Indian River Lagoon was the deadliest hotspot, where at least 327 manatees have died through Nov. 12, data show.
Decades of seagrass loss from repeated algal blooms in the lagoon — mostly a result of human pollution carried by rainfall runoff — has turned once lush meadows into barren moonscapes. Lake Okeechobee discharges kill seagrasses in Martin County.
“For the first time, we’ve had such a large number of manatees that have literally starved to death,” said Pat Rose, an aquatic biologist and executive director of Maitland-based Save the Manatee Club. “Sadly, this is just one indication that we’ve had some very serious problems after decades of recovery.”
Why is Indian River Lagoon seagrass dying?
State and federal wildlife officials in August raised concerns about a lack of seagrass for manatees to eat this winter, according to public records TCPalm obtained. Adults need 100 to 200 pounds per day to survive.
It could take at least a decade for full recovery of seagrass, and that’s a “best-case scenario,” according to notes from a private Aug. 2 meeting between the FWC, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other state manatee experts.
“Seagrass habitat in the Indian River Lagoon and surrounding bodies of water have declined significantly due to reduced water quality and clarity,” experts warned.
The lagoon has lost 58% of its seagrass coverage since 2009, or more than 46,000 acres. Most areas face 90% less grass than years past.
Signs of a potential record-year for manatee deaths began to emerge in March, when at least 432 animals had died through winter’s end. That rate was nearly three times higher than the five-year average, according to state wildlife data between 2016 and 2020.
What is an Unusual Mortality Event?
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Monica Ross, a senior research scientist at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium who oversees the tracking and monitoring of released manatees, assists in rescues and has researched the animals for over 30 years.
Her team’s fieldwork had tripled by the peak of the die-off, she told TCPalm.
She saw the first hint of what was to come in January. A manatee was floating sideways, drifting as it stared helplessly up at her. That happens when they are starving and lacking energy, she said.
“It was the oddest thing I’d ever seen,” she said. “A lot of these sideways-swimming animals usually were dead within a couple days.”
In response to the sharp increase in deaths, federal wildlife officials in March classified the ongoing die-off as an Unusual Mortality Event. That designation allows the federal government, working with the state and nonprofit organizations, to investigate the die-off and streamline resources to prevent more deaths.
“Across the broad range of the species, manatee populations appear relatively stable,” federal Fish and Wildlife spokesperson Chuck Underwood told TCPalm. “Of course, that is in contrast with the severe mortality occurring along Florida’s Atlantic Coast.”
“This is an ongoing event, and it may be some time before the extent of these impacts are fully known and understood,” Underwood said.
Boat strikes are the leading cause of manatee deaths — typically
Water below 68 degrees Fahrenheit can stress manatees. As temperatures warmed and manatees dispersed this summer, boat strikes again became the leading cause of death, according to FWRI.
This year, 90 manatees have been killed by boats, which compares to 91 in all of 2020, state data show. Still, starvation remains the top concern right now.
“The FWC takes this situation seriously and manatee conservation is a high priority for the agency,” FWC spokesperson Carli Segelson told TCPalm. “We are also continuing to explore a variety of options to assist manatees.”
One of those options is feeding them. While no decision has been made, federal and state wildlife officials held several meetings this year to weigh the pros and cons of giving non-native freshwater plants to manatees this winter.
But restoring water quality to the ailing the lagoon is the top priority, Segelson said.
“The goal … continues to be restoring the Indian River Lagoon to a healthy state,” she said. “In the end, that is the solution that will benefit manatees and other wildlife.”
How you can help save the manatees
Save the Manatee Club encourages people to urge Florida legislators to fund and support clean-water projects and aquatic habitat restoration, Rose said.
The FWC and other environmental organizations throughout the lagoon region, are actively involved in:
- Oyster restoration
- Mangrove restoration
- Marsh restoration
- Clam restoration
- Living shoreline enhancements
Many nonprofits are accepting donations: