Tragic news out of the Sunshine State as a widespread food shortage is causing manatees to die off at unprecedented rates.
According to NBC News, as of October 1st, there have been 959 documented manatee deaths, which is already a new record for a single year.
The manatees feed on seagrass, which is also dying at unprecedented rates due to declining water quality stemming from fertilizer runoff, wastewater discharges, and other forms of pollution.
The worst could still be coming, too, with colder weather on the way, which is also typically a driving force behind manatee deaths each winter. Overall numbers this year are expected to double the 593 manatee deaths reported last year.
Considering the population for the entire species is only somewhere between 7,500 and 10,200, losing more than 1,000 of them in a single year is a troubling sign.
The pattern is also negatively impacting businesses that rely on wildlife-related tourism.
Paul Fafeita works as a fishing guide and takes tourists on sightseeing excursions to view manatees, but business is not good right now.
“It’s not good when you’ve got clients on the boat and all of a sudden there’s a dead manatee.
They want to see them. They don’t want to see them dead.”
When man-made pollutants build up in the water, it triggers what’s known as an algae bloom. Algae blooms at the surface of the water block sunlight from reaching aquatic vegetation below. Without sunlight, seagrass can’t survive. Since 2009, roughly 58% of the seagrass has vanished in the Indian River Lagoon, one of the most critical habitat areas for manatees.
JP Brooker, the Florida Director for the Ocean Conservancy, is fearful about the direction things are headed.
“The cold hard fact is: Florida is at water quality and climate crossroads, and manatees are our canary in the coal mine.
They are dying off in record numbers because we humans have made Florida waters inhospitable to them,” Brooker said. “It’s not just our manatees at risk. It’s a coast-wide ecological problem.”
Gil McRae, director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, echoed that same sentiment.
“There is a huge sense of urgency. We’re uncertain how long high manatee deaths are going to be.
Those of you that have paid attention to feeding wildlife know that almost universally, it does more harm than good. there’s a possibility some level of supplemental feeding might be in order.”
Supplemental feeding is one option, but it’s going to take a lot more than that to fix the problem. Steps are being taken, though.
Earlier this year, government officials and the state legislature approved $8 million to launch a manatee habitat restoration program. However, there is a legitimate fear that even more manatees will starve to death before restoration efforts start to take hold.
Michael Sole, the vice-chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said his team is asking for another $7 million in the upcoming legislative session to expedite the process. Still, he knows time is of the essence.
“Seagrass restoration doesn’t happen overnight. We can’t really start planting seagrass until we have water quality improvements.
The winter is coming.”
Manatee numbers have been declining for decades primarily due to human-caused impacts. They are slow-moving animals who frequent shallow water, and as a result, dozens of them are killed by boat propellers each year. Pollution and cold weather kill off even more.
With increasing algal blooms and colder water conditions becoming more common, manatee conservation will be even more of an uphill battle moving forward.