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Florida on verge of 1,000 manatee deaths

Seagrass loss is causing them to starve, scientists say.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists examine the corpses of manatees in Indian River Lagoon in March. The number of Florida manatee deaths recorded this year is about to surpass 1,000.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists examine the corpses of manatees in Indian River Lagoon in March. The number of Florida manatee deaths recorded this year is about to surpass 1,000. [ Courtesy of Jason Gulley ]
Published Nov. 11
Updated Nov. 11

The number of Florida manatee deaths recorded this year is on the cusp of surpassing 1,000, which is already a record number for the Sunshine State’s iconic mammal.

“This year is unprecedented,” said Martine de Wit, a veterinarian in the state’s marine mammal pathology lab in St. Petersburg.

There have been 997 manatee deaths reported through Nov. 5, according to the latest Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission data. Manatee mortality reports are filed each Friday and released each Wednesday.

Florida may have already surpassed 1,000 deaths, but the official count won’t be released until next week.

This year’s fatalities over 11 months far surpasses the 2020 death toll of 637 manatees. It marks the most deaths since 830 died in 2013.

The veterinarian, de Wit, has spent more than 15 years investigating manatee health and performing necropsies (similar to an autopsies) for the state. The problems causing this year’s die-off, she said, have been building for a while.

“We’re dealing with poor health of ecosystems that are very critical to manatees,” de Wit said. “It’s not something that happened overnight.”

Related: Why you should care that Florida manatees are starving to death
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists flip a manatee corpse over to look for scars and injuries on its back during a field exam on Merritt Island.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists flip a manatee corpse over to look for scars and injuries on its back during a field exam on Merritt Island. [ JASON GULLEY | Courtesy of Jason Gulley ]

The vast majority of deaths occurred at the beginning of this year, during the winter months, when water temperatures dropped. Manatees clustered in traditional wintering grounds in the Indian River Lagoon, gaining warmth from the discharge at a power plant in Brevard County. But once there, they struggled to find food.

Years of seagrass loss have driven the grim trend, scientists say. Algal blooms, fueled by pollution from leaky septic tanks, sewer systems and fertilizer runoff, have devastated the ecosystem.

“Hundreds literally died of starvation,” said Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club.

Manatees are vegetarians who have evolved over millions of years in ecosystems with seagrass. Without it, they are trying to adapt by consuming other food sources, he said. However, those are not as nutritious.

Related: Florida’s deadly manatee crisis could flare again this winter
Jaime Vaccaro, a animal care specialist at ZooTampa's David A. Straz Manatee Critical Care Center, bottle feeds an orphaned manatee. Orphaned manatee calves require extensive care and are bottle fed every four hours. ZooTampa is one of two facilities in Florida that care for infant manatees.
Jaime Vaccaro, a animal care specialist at ZooTampa's David A. Straz Manatee Critical Care Center, bottle feeds an orphaned manatee. Orphaned manatee calves require extensive care and are bottle fed every four hours. ZooTampa is one of two facilities in Florida that care for infant manatees. [ JASON GULLEY | Courtesy of Jason Gulley ]
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As the number of 2021 deaths exceeds 1,000, Rose is bracing for what the winter ahead will bring.

“They literally have to make the choice between starving to death or freezing,” he said. “We could lose hundreds more this winter.”

Rose fears the need for manatee rescues will exceed capacity. “I’m literally both sad and mad at the same time that it ever came to this because there were many warnings,” he said.

Even if everything goes right in terms of restoring the health of the water, recovery is years away. “It takes years and years to undo what was done through decades of abuse,” Rose said.

“It’s almost like you have a ticking time bomb,” he said. “I hope people recognize how severe the consequences can be.”

Related: Clearwater aquarium will add manatee rehab pools and exhibit amid year of record deaths

Monica Ross, a senior research scientist at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, has worked with manatees for over three decades. Since she began, efforts to recover the species have been at least somewhat successful.

In 2017, the species’ status was improved from endangered to threatened by federal wildlife regulators. The most recent population estimate from 2015-16 indicated at least 7,520 were alive, according to the state.

But the latest trends mark a concerning shift. Some advocates and lawmakers are calling for the manatee to be moved back to endangered species status.

“The loss of habitat — that had put a whole new twist on how we continue to help this species recover,” Ross said.

Related: The consequence of record-breaking manatee deaths: orphans

Red Tide, experts say, is also contributing to the death toll along Florida’s southwest shore. Tampa Bay and the Pinellas coastline were hit hard by a bloom this summer.

Physical injury is another cause of death. The number of manatee deaths caused by boats rose for five years, but dipped in 2020. So far this year, 89 manatees have been killed by watercraft, which is 9 percent of this year’s record fatalities.

It’s likely, however, that watercraft injuries were significantly uncounted because many dead manatees were not necropsied, Rose said. “Almost every manatee in the state of Florida has been within an inch or two of losing its life to a boat.”

Ross, the researcher, cautions boaters to safely share the waterways by obeying speeds and staying in deeper water channels.

Some manatees come to de Wit entangled or with debris in their guts. “Do not discard fish lines or hooks into the water,” she said. She also cautions that it is illegal to feed manatees if you see them in the wild. It is safe to observe them from a distance.

The unprecedented rate of manatee deaths is just the beginning of the toll that environmental changes will have on wildlife, Ross said.

“It’s our Florida, and we have to do our part to fix it.”

Related: Red Tide suspected as manatees deaths pile up in Tampa Bay

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See a manatee in need?

Anyone who sees a manatee in distress — sick, injured, entangled, orphaned dying or dead — should report it immediately to the state’s Wildlife Alert Hotline at 1-888-404-3922.