Florida's manatees are having a record year, as measured by carcasses washing ashore in our coastal communities. A "worst ever" Red Tide earlier this year in Southwest Florida and a lingering unusual mortality event in the Indian River Lagoon on Florida's east coast have made it a difficult year to be a manatee.
The deaths have nothing to do with the size of the manatee population. These deaths are not natural controls on a growing population. They are a loud and clear signal that our waterways are in trouble.
When the 2010 manatee mortality statistics were finalized at 766, that was significant, frightening and sad — several hundred more deaths than had ever been recorded in a single year, many the result of prolonged cold weather. It was regarded as a rare event — an anomaly.
Yet here we are again, less than three years later, having broken that 2010 record with two months still left to go. As of Oct. 29, 769 Florida manatees had died. Of those, 123 were stillborn, newborn or young calves under 5 feet long — another record. And 49 of these were found in Brevard County, at the epicenter of the unusual mortality event linked to a variety of algal blooms and the loss of 47,000 acres of sea grass since 2010.
There's little question that human mistreatment of the Indian River Lagoon played a hand in the disastrous cascade that began in 2010. On the southwest coast, during the peak of the Red Tide, manatees were dying so fast that scientists didn't have the time or resources to conduct postmortem exams on all of them before committing them to mass graves. Red Tide is another one of those natural events to which our species adds fuel to the proverbial fire with our coastal nutrient runoff.
If you haven't seen and felt the effects of Red Tide or the algal blooms in the Indian River Lagoon, then reading this might not mean much to you. Our species has a keen ability to ignore that which we don't see ourselves.
Unfortunately, until we all — each and every one of us — accept that we're part of the problem, and even more importantly, an integral part of the solution, there's little hope for our canaries in the coal mines: our manatees and their imperiled habitat.
Katie Tripp has been Save the Manatee Club's director of science and conservation since May 2008. She earned her doctorate in veterinary medical sciences from the University of Florida, where she conducted research on manatee physiology.