A catastrophic die-off of manatees has continued this winter, despite the unprecedented intervention of state and federal wildlife agencies to save one of Florida’s most beloved animals.
The bodies of 85 manatees were recovered last month on Florida’s Atlantic coast, most dead of starvation in the area of the Indian River Lagoon, officials said Wednesday in an online news conference. On Friday alone, wildlife officers recovered 16 carcasses, most in Brevard County.
“That is the same pattern we had last winter, and these numbers will continue,” said Dr. Martine deWit, the veterinarian who examines dead manatees for the state of Florida.
Rescue operations continue, with wildlife officers trying to capture emaciated manatees to rehabilitate them. But at least a dozen manatees are known to require a rescue and so far have not been caught, said Andy Garrett, manatee rescue coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation.
“My biologists are seeing thin animals, emaciated animals,” he said.
A record 1,101 manatees died last year, most from starvation in the Indian River Lagoon area, according to the state wildlife commission. Last November state and federal officials set up a unified command to address the manatee deaths, increasing patrols and beefing up rescue efforts for manatees in distress and taking the unusual step of offering them food.
“We’re doing everything we can to try to support this species,” said Tom Reinert, the state wildlife commission’s south regional director.
The manatees have run short on seagrass to eat, as pollution washing off cities and farms has killed vast areas of seagrass in the lagoon.
Officials said they expect the difficulties to last at least through next winter, since it’s unlikely the lagoon’s seagrass will recover any time soon.
Environmental groups have sued over the deaths, accusing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of failing to designate sufficient areas as “critical habitat” for the threatened marine mammals. Environmental groups have also filed notice of intent to sue the Environmental Protection Agency over what they said was the agency’s failure to step in the stop the pollution of the lagoon.
“The Florida manatee crisis is the result of a failure to protect manatee habitat,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups suing the federal government to protect them.
“Just like humans need safe places to rest, eat, and raise their families, manatees need all those things from our waterways. We messed up in allowing these waters to get so polluted that seagrasses collapsed and now so manatees are dying.”
Particularly dangerous for manatees has been the recent cold weather. Intolerant of water temperatures below 68 degrees, manatees huddle around the discharge zones of power plants during period of cold.
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
But because so many gather together — a one-day survey last week found 303 at the Port Everglades power plant — they strip the surrounding area of food.