1,000 dead manatees: Florida surpasses a grim milestone

The year began with an unprecedented die-off in the Indian River Lagoon. Now another winter is coming.
Florida had already set a record for manatee deaths in 2021. The toll has now surpassed 1,000.
Florida had already set a record for manatee deaths in 2021. The toll has now surpassed 1,000. [ DOUGLAS CLIFFORD | Times (2015) ]
Published Nov. 17, 2021|Updated Nov. 17, 2021

Since July, every weekly update from state wildlife officials has set a new record for the most manatee deaths counted in a single year. Today, Florida crossed an especially tragic threshold: more than 1,000 manatees dead.

The exact count, through Nov. 12, was 1,003 manatees, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Related: Why you should care that Florida manatees are starving to death

That is up from 637 all of last year and far above the previous record, 830, in 2013. Florida passed the previous high halfway through 2021. Manatee death reports are filed each Friday and published by the state the following Wednesday.

“It makes me sad and angry,” said Patrick Rose, executive director of Save the Manatee Club, a conservation nonprofit.

The bad year got off to a quick start. Manatees took shelter from cold water by seeking the warm discharges from a power plant in the Indian River Lagoon off Brevard County, scientists say. The area is a typical wintering spot, but years of algal blooms there have killed tens of thousands of acres of seagrass. That destruction left manatees without enough food. Many starved.

“It could’ve been prevented,” Rose said. The algal blooms that decimated the lagoon draw fuel from human pollution, including septic leaks, sewer overflows and fertilizer runoff during rainstorms.

Starvation is not the only culprit for manatee deaths, though. Nearly 100 have been killed in collisions with boats or other watercraft, Conservation Commission data show. Red Tide also may have been a factor in at least 44 manatee deaths this year, according to the state. The Tampa Bay and Pinellas shorelines were hit hard by a toxic bloom this summer.

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

The die-off in 2021 has left some with fears for the long-term health of one of Florida’s most beloved and iconic species. Manatees are listed as a threatened animal, after federal wildlife regulators improved their status from endangered in 2017. The Conservation Commission in recent years estimated at least 7,520 were alive.

Related: Florida on verge of 1,000 manatee deaths

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Sarasota Republican, introduced a bill in August to return manatees to an endangered status. If passed, H.R. 4946 could draw more funding and attention, Buchanan said, which he hopes would help protect the creatures.

“I represent Manatee County. Manatees are so beloved there, but also across Florida,” Buchanan said. “People are very passionate about it.”

Manatees aren’t only cute, Rose said. Their health is a marker for the well-being of the entire ecosystem. Fish and turtles also eat or live in seagrass, and poor water quality affects human health.

Related: Red Tide isn’t just bad for fish, as a Tampa Bay man learned in the ER

The damage that caused the die-off last winter is not easily repaired. State scientists and conservationists fear a repeat if manatees around Brevard County struggle again to find food this winter. They have spent months thinking about ways to prevent similar devastation, including increasing efforts to rescue manatees and providing food to animals that cannot naturally find seagrass. Supplemental feeding is not usually recommended. The Conservation Commission says residents should not feed manatees.

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As of last week, 132 had been rescued in Florida so far this year. That included 13 manatees in Brevard County, according to the state. More rescues could help, but the handful of facilities that treat critically injured manatees are already near capacity.

ZooTampa, one such location, said in a statement that its workers have provided “around-the-clock care” for 10 months. The zoo said its leaders support moving manatees back to an endangered status, explaining that the die-off could have ramifications years into the future.

Times staff writer Zachary T. Sampson contributed to this report.

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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.

Tips for viewing manatees safely

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recommends that people do not feed, touch or chase manatees. If you encounter them in the wild, give them space. Do not make a lot of noise or splash if a manatee surfaces near you; doing so can scare them.