Manatee Record in Florida Is a Grim One

Annual death toll for the marine creatures tops 1K, highest number since at least the '70s
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Oct 26, 2021 2:11 PM CDT
Updated Nov 18, 2021 8:32 AM CST
Manatees' Die-Off Continues in Florida
In this 2010 photo, a group of manatees are in a canal where discharge from a nearby Florida Power & Light plant warms the water in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Florida is experiencing an unprecedented die-off of manatees this year, with 959 documented deaths as of mid-October.   (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

Update: The manatee die-off continues in the Sunshine State, with a grim new record: For the first time, annual deaths of the marine mammal have exceeded 1,000. Per the AP, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported on Wednesday that 1,003 manatees have died this year so far, surpassing the 637 that died in total in 2020—and making it the largest yearly death toll since at least the '70s, reports FOX 13. Although impacts with watercraft are responsible for a portion of the deaths, water pollution is spurring algae blooms that kill off the seagrass that manatees need to live. Combine that with climate change and the species' slow reproduction rate, among other factors, and it looks like it will be a tough winter for the creatures. "Manatees are in serious trouble," ZooTampa says in a statement, per the AP. "The loss of more than 1,000 manatees this year is deeply concerning and will have serious repercussions for years to come." Our original story from Oct. 26 follows:

Florida is experiencing an unprecedented die-off of manatees this year, with 959 documented deaths as of Oct. 1. That's already more than any full year on record, and colder weather soon to come could bring another wave of deaths in a population that numbers between 7,500 and 10,200 along both Florida coasts, according to state estimates. Manatee deaths this year will likely double the 593 recorded in 2020, and will far outnumber the latest five-year average of 146 deaths in Florida, according to state figures, with no end to the die-off in sight.

"There is a huge sense of urgency," said Gil McRae, director of the state Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. "We’re uncertain how long it’s (high manatee deaths) going to be." The reason? Seagrass on which the so-called sea cows depend also is dying as water quality declines due to fertilizer runoff, wastewater discharges, and polluted water that is increasingly diverted on purpose from Lake Okeechobee to coastal estuaries, the AP reports. These manmade pollutants can cause algae blooms so thick that seagrass can't get the sunlight it needs to survive. Since 2009 about 58% of the seagrass has been lost in the Indian River Lagoon, state estimates show.

State and federal environmental officials are beginning a manatee habitat restoration program, armed with $8 million in state money approved this year by Florida legislators. They say with cooler winter months on the way, the tendency of manatees to congregate in warmer waters could mean many more of the creatures will starve before the restoration work is completed. The commission is asking state lawmakers to approve another $7 million in the upcoming legislative session for seagrass restoration, manatee rehabilitation, centers and other projects. (Read more manatees stories.)

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