It’s only July, and yet Florida has already lost 843 manatees, making 2021 the deadliest year on record for the gentle marine mammals.
The previous record in our state was 830 that died in 2013, largely because of a toxic red tide.
“This is really a very sad wake-up call,” said Cora Berchem, a research associate at the Save the Manatee nonprofit. “I’m devastated because I thought last year was already bad enough when we had 637 manatees die over the entire year.
“Going forward, we may even surpass over a thousand manatees that will be dying this year alone, and that’s a really scary statistic.”
According to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, 54 manatee deaths have been recorded this year in Broward County, with 21 in Miami-Dade County and 18 in Monroe County.
A staggering 316 deaths have happened in Brevard County, in the Indian River Lagoon and surrounding areas.
“In Brevard County alone they have lost 47,000 acres of seagrass, and that’s about 90% of the seagrass that’s been lost there,” Berchem said.
Seagrass is the top food source for manatees. With large swaths of it disappearing across the state, our manatees are literally starving to death.
“We’ve seen manatees in very, very emaciated body condition, not just small manatee that don’t know where to find food, but really large animals, females of reproductive age,” Berchem said.
They reproduce very slowly and usually have only one calf at a time that they’ll nurse from one to two years. Scientists fear the manatee population won’t easily bounce back.
Aarin Allen, part of the Florida International University’s Institute of Environment research team documenting the manatee mortality, says that with more than 21 square miles of seagrass lost in Biscayne Bay over the past decade, a hungry manatee will instead eat the algae that’s now beginning to take over.
”Algae may not have the nutrient content that the seagrass may have and that can absolutely have a detrimental impact on the animal’s health,” Allen said. “But to what degree we’re not exactly certain right now.”
The algae is thriving because of all the pollution we continue to dump into the bay — sewage and septic leaks, stormwater and fertilizer run-off — deadly nutrients that kill the seagrass and feed the algae.
Then there’s all the junk we also throw into the water, much of it toxic plastic that often gets mixed in with the manatees’ food.
And if they’re not being poisoned or starved, many are being run over with our boats.
So far this year we’ve lost 63 manatees to watercraft collisions. In a typical year, this accounts for 20-25% of all manatee deaths.
“These deaths associated with boating and unsafe boating practices and going too fast and not respecting the wake zone are preventable deaths,” said Irela Bague, Miami-Dade County’s chief bay officer.
Bagueis launching the Save the Manatee initiative to crack down on reckless boaters and jetskiers.
According to the state’s last count, roughly 6,300 manatees live in Florida, but with more than 840 already gone this year, these defenseless creatures are disappearing right before our eyes.
In 2017, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service took manatees off the endangered species list because their numbers seemed to be increasing, but so were the threats these docile animals are facing. Now scientists and environmentalists want the government to relist them from threatened to endangered to once again offer them greater protection.
In the meantime, how we behave both on the water and on land will make all the difference. The survival of the species literally in our hands.
Among the steps we can take are to stop using fertilizers on our lawn until after the rainy season is over, stop littering and stop using single-use plastics. And boaters and jetskiers, please slow down in manatee and low-wake zones. It’s the law.
And, perhaps most importantly, if you see an injured or sick manatee call the FWC hotline right away so the animal can be rescued: 1-888-404-3922.
“We really need to make sure we take a proactive step right now, do what we can to not make this any worse,” Berchem said, “and to really make sure that we do have manatees around for future generations to come.”