TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Deaths of the threatened West Indian manatee are increasing at a rapid rate in Florida this year compared to preliminary numbers released by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in 2020.
According to those preliminary numbers from FWC, a total of 637 manatee deaths were reported across the state last year.
The state has already reported a staggering 432 deaths of manatees statewide in 2021 as of March 5. Twenty-four of those deaths have been reported in the Tampa Bay area. Hillsborough County has reported the most manatee deaths with 12.
According to Patrick Rose, aquatic biologist and executive director of Save The Manatee Club, the east coast of Florida is the hardest-hit by the mortality event, specifically Indian River Lagoon, which is a 150-mile stretch of inland river system. Brevard County alone has seen around 200 manatee deaths so far this year.
Rose said the height of the problem stems from a lack of food for the mammals.
“For decades, there have been too many nutrients going into the northern Indian River Lagoon in particular. It finally kicked over to the point where seagrass started dying in large numbers, up to 50-some-thousand some acres,” he said. “It’s a sequence of events where too much nutrients led to harmful algae blooms, which shaded the seagrasses, caused the seagrasses to die, that reduced the forage available for manatees over many different years of decline.”
Rose said manatees went into this cold season less healthy than they would have been normally. He said the combination of cold waters and malnutrition caused, “quite a few of them to die and to weaken many others.”
The immediate solution would be for manatees to be able to spread out and find food in more remote places, even in freshwater systems. Rose, however, said this issue is long-term.
“We’ve got to fix what’s broken. We’ve got to stop the pollution going in, the excess nitrogen and phosphorus coming from the leeching drain fields, from septic tanks, from the runoff from the lawns and the storm water runoff,” he said.
While the east coast of Florida is seeing heightened problems, the Tampa Bay area is thankfully not seeing as many manatee deaths, though boaters are still cautioned to be careful on the waters and take all precautions to watch for manatees.
“Tampa Bay is one of the brighter spots right now in terms of the [seagrass] recovery process that’s been ongoing for decades. So it’s been going in the more positive direction while many other waterways in Florida are going the wrong way,” Rose said.
Florida manatees are protected on both the state and federal level. Save The Manatee Club has released a video on how to tell if a manatee is in distressed or sick on their website and Facebook page.
The organization also noted that it is illegal to give manatees food, even lettuce. There are different ways for the public to help save these gentle giants here in Florida.
To report a distressed or dead manatee, Floridians and visitors can go online to the FWC website or call 888-404-FWCC. Cell phone users can also call #FWC or *FWC.