More Florida manatees have died in just the past six months than in any other recorded year, due in part to starvation from the death of seagrass, according to a report by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The staggering manatee mortality rate reached 841 from Jan. 1 to July 2, the commission said. That already surpasses the previous record for an entire year, when 830 manatees died in 2013.
The high mortality rate is attributed to a lack of food along the manatees’ migration route on the Atlantic coast, according to the commission.
The state recorded 637 manatee deaths in all of 2020. It reported 607 the year before that.
The majority of deaths so far this year occurred in the winter months, when many migrating manatees passed through the Indian River Lagoon. More than a third of the deaths — 312 — were in Brevard, which saw the majority of the seagrass — a significant food source for manatees — in its Indian River lagoon die off during that period.
“As temperatures warmed up and manatees on the Atlantic coast dispersed to other habitat(s) for foraging, the numbers of malnourished carcasses and manatees in need of rescue decreased,” officials said.
In June, boating accidents made a resurgence as a leading cause of manatee deaths. In the six-month period, 63 manatees died from boating collisions.
The state of Florida has established regulatory speed zones to protect manatees in their natural habitat.
Hillsborough and Pinellas counties have reported a combined 50 deaths so far, including 15 attributed to watercraft collisions.
The Florida manatee was listed as an endangered species until 2017, when it was reclassified as threatened as the population grew, the commission said.
There are now more than 6,300 manatees in Florida, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s website.
The commission said it’s continuing to “monitor and investigate manatee health, respond to manatees in need of rescue, and implement science-based conservation measures that protect manatees and their habitat.”