Though it’s only July, the total number of Florida manatee deaths in 2021 has already reached a higher total than it did in all of 2020, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. At 843 deaths, last reported on July 9, this is already the deadliest year on record.
The previous record was 830 in 2013, and that was largely attributed to toxic red tide, Local 10 News in Miami reported.
In fact, the Working Group on Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events and the FWC have declared this year’s deaths an “unusual mortality event.” That means the deaths are unexpected, involve a significant die-off and demands immediate response.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, this is crucial because the event can be an indicator of the ocean’s overall health, and it gives insight into larger environmental issues that could have implications on human health.
Cora Berchem, a research associate at the Save the Manatee nonprofit, said it’s possible to surpass more than 1,000 deaths of manatees in this year alone.
“That’s a really scary statistic,” she said. “This is really a very sad wake-up call.”
Berchem said in Brevard County alone, 47,000 acres -- or 90% -- of seagrass have been lost, adding that manatees of all ages are being found in very emaciated conditions.
Because of the loss of seagrass, manatees are resorting to eating algae that’s taking over, said Aarin Allen, who is part of the Florida International University’s Institute of Environment research team.
“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, but to what degree, we’re not exactly certain right now,” he said.
Factors like pollution dumped into the water -- sewage and septic leaks, stormwater and fertilizer run-off -- are killing the seagrass and feeding the algae.
Below, you can see the number of manatee deaths this year, in prior years and in which counties the deaths are mainly occurring, as well the cause.
Michelle Kerr, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission spokeswoman, said that in 2020 and thus far in 2021, some manatees were “recorded into the mortality database and not recovered because of COVID quarantine restrictions,” explaining the “verified, not recovered” status.
“It takes several staff together to pick up a manatee carcass,” Kerr said.
The Associated Press also credited 63 manatee deaths this year to watercraft collisions, with Miami-Dade County’s chief bay officer citing unsafe boating practices, going too fast and not respecting the wake zone as cause for manatee deaths that could be prevented.
At one time, manatees were listed as an endangered species, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed them in 2017 after seeing an increase in numbers (see below). However, with the data that’s been presented so far this year, scientists and environmentalists are urging the government to re-list them so as to offer greater protection.
Here’s what you can do to help, according to FWC:
- If you see a sick, injured, dead or tagged manatee, call FWC Wildlife Alert at 888-404-3922 or *FWC on a cellphone.
- Boaters will find manatees easier to spot if they wear polarized sunglasses and keep a lookout for signs of manatees, such as the circular “footprints” they trace on the top of the water, or their snouts sticking up out the water.
- Look, but don’t touch manatees. Keep your distance when boating, even if you are steering a canoe, kayak or paddleboard. Be a good role model for others so that they learn how to watch and enjoy manatees without disturbing the animals.
“We really need to make sure we take a proactive step right now, do what we can to not make this any worse, and to really make sure that we do have manatees around for future generations to come,” Berchem said.