TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has released a preliminary report stating that 1,003 manatees have died in the state of Florida as of Nov. 12.

The latest report was released Wednesday as water temperatures across the state begin to cool and west Indian manatees begin to migrate to warmer waters.

The threatened native species has taken a hit to its numbers in 2021, due to red tide on the west coast of Florida and an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) on the east coast due to seagrass die-off caused by an algal bloom.

Senior Research Scientist at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute Monica Ross is responsible for an assortment of manatee projects in Florida and partner work in Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina.

Ross and the institute take the lead on multiple tagging programs, studying how manatees released back into the wild adapt to ever-changing environments. They are also using photo identification to look at manatee habitat use in some of Florida’s springs, some of which have been monitored for around 12 years.

Some manatees rescued due to the UME have been tagged as well to see how they adapt, Ross explained.

She is worried about the animals moving forward in this unprecedented year.

“We’re very fearful of what it’s going to be like going into this winter,” Ross said.

While Florida has seen previously high rates of manatee deaths, this year’s current total is historic. The previous state record for manatee deaths was 830 in 2013.

“We’ve had [a] high number of moralities in past years, but this year has been very unprecedent[ed] because of how widespread it is and the year’s not over with yet,” Ross said. “I have been working with manatees for over 30 years now and this is the highest mortality and very wide impact that we’ve seen for manatees. It’s disturbing.” 

It is always illegal on both the state and federal level to harass, harm, and feed manatees. Ross wants to expand on that, saying she tries to tell people who love manatees to “do what’s right by them” and just stay away.

“One of the things that as a citizen you can do is if you do see manatees is to give them their space. Specifically this winter, they’re going to need to conserve as much energy as they can so try and give them as much space as you can. Don’t disturb them at all,” she said.

ZooTampa at Lowry Park is one of four critical care centers for manatees in the United States.

In a statement, the zoo said it supports the bipartisan effort to reclassify the mammal as “endangered” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Manatees are in serious trouble. Our David A. Straz, Jr. Manatee Critical Care Center, which is the second largest in the country, has been operating at near capacity for almost 10 months, providing around the clock care and rehabilitation to the most critically ill manatees from across Florida including a record number of orphaned calves. The loss of more than 1000 manatees this year is deeply concerning and will have serious repercussions for years to come.

We recognize that the current listing of “threatened” provides protections for manatees, as do Florida law and the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act. However, as evidenced by this year’s staggering death toll, many threats remain, including seagrass insufficiency, habitat loss, pollution, climate change, and declining water quality.

As experts in the field, ZooTampa believes uplisting manatees will keep needed focus on protecting this species, helping the veterinarians, biologists, researchers, lawmakers, wildlife officials, and Florida residents who collaborate to identify the causes of, and solutions to, these risks.

ZooTampa at Lowry Park

The latest estimate on the state’s manatee population is about 8,800 manatees, according to data presented by Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute Director Gil McRae to a subcommittee of lawmakers, collected over 2015-2016.

All sick, injured, or dead manatees should be reported to FWC by calling #FWC or *FWC.