Record-breaking Year for Manatee Deaths

Image: Pixabay

By Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

Almost 1,000 of Florida’s manatees have died as of Oct.1 this year, setting a tragic record for the most deaths in a year, with two months left to go. Deaths were largely caused by starvation — the predator-less sea cows typically spend hours a day eating seagrass, but declining water quality is killing their food supply. Runoff full of fertilizer, chemicals, and wastewater creates ideal conditions for algae blooms, which block sunlight needed for seagrass to grow. In one favorite manatee spot, the Indian River Lagoon, an estimated 58% of seagrass had died.


Why This Matters: This year will be the worst for manatee deaths since the state started keeping track of the numbers in the 1970s. Nutrient pollution — especially excess nitrogen and phosphorus — that flows into Florida’s water bodies from farms, lawns, and industrial sites, are the primary culprit behind the algae blooms. Warmer waters caused by climate change will make them even more severe.


“The cold hard fact is: Florida is at a water quality and climate crossroads, and manatees are our canary in the coal mine,” J.P. Brooker, Florida director for the Ocean Conservancy environmental group, wrote in an editorial for The Invading Sea earlier this year.  


Winter is Coming

Manatees are hefty — around 1,000 pounds large — but don’t have much blubber to keep them warm. In water temperatures below 68 degrees Fahrenheit, they experience cold stress. That means these coming months are especially dangerous without adequate food as they need more seagrass to keep warm. The state recently allocated $8 million to a manatee habitat restoration program, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is asking for another $7 million to help the seagrass rebound so manatees can too. While these funds can help improve conditions in the long term, this winter is still expected to be a deadly one for manatees. 


“Seagrass restoration doesn’t happen overnight. We can’t really start planting seagrass until we have water quality improvements,” Michael Sole, vice chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, told Miami Herald.

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