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Federal officials to help study why so many Florida manatees are dying

At least 432 mantees had died as of March 5.
A manatee inspects snorkeler Julie Barney, of Vero Beach, right, and her mother, Laura Rogers, of Vero Beach, while swimming near the entrance to Three Sisters Springs on  on Kings Bay in Crystal River in 2014.
A manatee inspects snorkeler Julie Barney, of Vero Beach, right, and her mother, Laura Rogers, of Vero Beach, while swimming near the entrance to Three Sisters Springs on on Kings Bay in Crystal River in 2014. [ DOUGLAS CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Mar. 23
Updated Mar. 23

Federal officials will help investigate an alarming spike in Florida manatee deaths, according to multiple agencies.

At least 432 manatees had died as of March 5, the state reported, nearly 300 more than the 5-year average for the same period. Many of the dead manatees have turned up in Brevard County, where experts believe the animals are going without a crucial food source because harmful algal blooms have killed off seagrass beds.

Related: Florida manatees are dying at a worrisome rate. Many appear to be starving.

U.S. Rep Stephanie Murphy, D-Winter Park, and Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, had both publicly asked officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to step in and study the die-off.

“Florida’s diverse animal life is deeply important to people in our state, and few creatures are more beloved than the manatee,” Murphy said in a statement Tuesday.

The government has declared the issue a marine mammal “unusual mortality event,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries division’s website. It is listed as the 71st such event declared since 1991.

“Understanding and investigating marine mammal UMEs is crucial because they can be indicators of ocean health, giving insight into larger environmental issues, which may also have implications for human health,” NOAA Fisheries says.

Murphy’s office said the federal government will work with Florida officials “to investigate the cause of the die-off and to take immediate steps to prevent more manatees from dying.” A spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is leading the response.

Manatees are considered a threatened species, with the state wildlife agency estimating at least 7,520 alive today. Regulators moved up their status from endangered in 2017, a decision that some advocates considered premature.