Florida manatees die in record numbers due to food shortage

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla – Florida fishing guide and environmental activist Paul Fafeita said one of his charter clients’ strengths is spotting manatees foraging on seagrass in shallow water. It’s not so exciting when they stumble upon the emaciated carcass of a starving manatee.

Florida is experiencing unprecedented manatee mortality this year, with 959 documented deaths as of October 1. That’s already more than any full year on record, and colder weather ahead could lead to another wave of deaths in a population that matters. between 7,500 and 10,200 along both coasts of Florida, according to state estimates.

Manatee deaths this year will likely double the 593 recorded in 2020 and far exceed the latest five-year average of 146 deaths in Florida, state figures show with no end of mortality in sight.

“There is a tremendous sense of urgency,” said Gil McRae, director of the state’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. “We don’t know how long this will last (the high number of manatee deaths).”

The reason? Seagrass beds on which so-called sea cows depend are also dying as water quality decreases due to runoff of fertilizers, sewage discharges and polluted water that is increasingly being purposely diverted. from Lake Okeechobee to the coastal estuaries.

These man-made pollutants can cause algae blooms so thick that seagrass cannot get the sunlight they need to survive, compromising the manatee’s primary food supply. Since 2009, around 58% of seagrass beds have been lost in the Indian River Lagoon, according to state estimates.

“The point is, Florida is at a crossroads of water quality and climate, and manatees are our canary in the coal mine,” said JP Brooker, Florida director for the Ocean Conservancy environmental group. , in an opinion piece published by The Invading Sea. , a 26 Florida media collaboration focused on the impact of climate change.

“They are dying in record numbers because we humans have made Florida’s waters inhospitable,” Brooker said. “It’s not just our manatees at risk, it’s a coast-wide ecological problem.”

State and federal environmental officials are launching a manatee habitat restoration program, armed with $ 8 million in state funds approved this year by Florida lawmakers. They say that with cooler winter months, the tendency for manatees to congregate in warmer waters could mean many more creatures will starve to death before restoration work is complete.

“The restoration of herbaria does not happen overnight. We can’t really start planting seagrass until we improve the water quality, ”said Michael Sole, vice president of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “Winter is coming.”

The commission is asking state lawmakers to approve an additional $ 7 million in the next legislative session for seagrass restoration, manatee rehabilitation centers and other projects. At a committee hearing last week, McRae said researchers are also studying whether humans can feed manatees without harming them.

“Those of you who have paid attention to feeding wildlife know that almost universally it does more harm than good,” McRae told lawmakers. But if the number of manatees continues to drop, “it’s possible that some level of additional feeding is in order,” he said.

Manatees have struggled to resist humans for decades. Collisions with boats kill dozens of slow-moving animals despite the dead zones in areas frequented by animals, and many more bear lifelong scars from such encounters. There are also threats from red tide outbreaks and unusually cold weather.

They are gentle, round-tailed giants, weighing up to 1,200 pounds (550 kilograms) and living to about 65 years of age. Manatees are the official marine mammals of the state of Florida and are closely related to elephants.

Perhaps the best-known and oldest manatee in captivity, a male named Snooty, has died at 69, drowned after a malfunction of a trap door in his aquarium at a museum in Bradenton in 2017.

Manatees were classified as endangered starting in 1966 by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, a designation downgraded to the least stringent threatened category in 2016. A new push is underway to list manatees as endangered to increase their chances of long-term recovery.

“Florida’s manatees desperately need us to help them clean up and protect their habitat,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director and senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity, a St. Petersburg which aims to save endangered species. The center and other groups plan to sue the US Fish and Wildlife Service to strengthen protection of manatee habitat.

So far, the threatened designation has remained in place. A 2017 federal state analysis put Florida’s manatee extinction risk at less than half a percent over the next 100 years.

Yet for environmental groups, the manatee’s struggle is a signal that humans are destroying the coastal estuaries they and many other creatures need to survive.

The State Department of Environmental Protection has launched a program to dramatically reduce the load of harmful discharges to the Indian River Lagoon by 2035.

The emphasis is on reducing the introduction of nitrogen and phosphorus which is responsible for the proliferation of algae which kills the seagrass beds. Projects to date have reduced releases of these nutrients by 37% of the ultimate goal, according to the state’s environmental agency.

Meanwhile, efforts to save and rehabilitate starving manatees continue in places like the SeaWorld theme park in Orlando or the Tampa Zoo.

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium in September announced plans for a $ 10 million manatee rescue and rehabilitation center, the fifth of its kind in Florida.

A coalition of 16 environmental and business groups this summer called on Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to declare the manatee’s death an emergency, which could focus resources and attention on the problem. DeSantis did not, saying in a press conference that it would “scare a lot of people” and possibly cause economic damage.

“We have a lot of money at our disposal,” the governor said.

Back on the water, fishing guide and activist Fafeita said it’s not just manatees – seagrass reduction is also affecting other species such as blue crabs and speckled sea trout.

“You know, the list goes on and on,” Fafeita said. “Right now our big concern is the manatee. We are not going to catch that many fish this year. It affects us some. The real impact will be next year.

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AP video reporter Cody Jackson contributed from Vero Beach, Florida.

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