Florida manatees dying at alarming rate
Florida manatees died at an average rate of seven a day in the first two months of this year, an alarming pace that’s drawing the attention of biologists, lawmakers and admirers of the gentle marine mammals throughout the state.
The rate is nearly three times higher than the five-year average of 146 deaths through March 5, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission data between 2016 and 2020.
If that rate continues, the state could surpass the record of 830 manatee deaths set in 2013. In response to this sharp increase, federal wildlife officials Monday agreed the ongoing die-off is an Unusual Mortality Event, or UME.
This designation allows the federal government, working with the state and nonprofit organizations, to investigate what’s causing the die-off and to take quick action to prevent more manatees from dying.
A decline in seagrass habitat is leaving manatees starved and without adequate food supply, biologists say. A colder-than-normal December, followed by moderate cold snaps this year, stunned or killed some of the warm-blooded animals.
As biologists work to rescue as many manatees as possible, aerial counts to monitor population numbers have been halted for two consecutive years.
The situation is critical, said Patrick Rose, an aquatic biologist and executive director of Save the Manatee Club, a Maitland-based nonprofit advocacy group.
“We’re absolutely at an urgent point to find those manatees that are on the verge of death and rescue them soon enough, so that they can be rehabilitated and returned to the wild,” Rose said. “If we miss this opportunity to turn this around and it got a lot worse, there may not be the ability to recover going forward.”
Indian River Lagoon
At least 432 manatees died in Florida waters between Jan. 1 and March 5 this year, compared to 637 in all of 2020 and a near-record 804 in all of 2018.
Over half died in the five counties housing the 156-mile-long Indian River Lagoon, totaling 244 or 56%, compared to 270 in all of 2020:
- 179 in Brevard
- 26 in Martin
- 19 in Volusia
- 15 in Indian River
- 5 in St. Lucie
The cause of death is “undetermined” for nearly 70% of those manatees, as their bodies were too decomposed to necropsy. Biologists determined 41 deaths were from cold stress and 17 were from boat strikes, compared to 52 and 90 respectively in all of 2020.
Many manatees also showed signs of starvation. Food scarcity, namely seagrass loss, is the state’s primary concern.