An unusually high number of manatees have died in the state so far in 2021, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Through March 26, 573 manatee deaths have been recorded, with almost half — 248 — occurring in the Indian River Lagoon, where malnutrition appears the likely culprit.
Comparing that with the 637 manatee deaths that were recorded in the entirety of 2020 was enough for federal officials to declare an “unusual mortality event” in the Indian River Lagoon.
Monroe County manatees appear to be doing better, with 10 deaths reported to date, mostly in Key West and the Everglades, according to FWC. Three of those deaths in the county were listed as a result of a watercraft collision. Two were listed as “perinatal,” or manatee calves dying in infancy.
The FWC put out a news release last week reminding boaters to be aware of the threat they pose to manatees and to slow down as spring is the season when manatees begin to disperse into rivers, canals and other waterways as the temperature rises. There are certain water areas that boaters are required to slow down in to limit harm to manatees from April 1 through Nov. 15. Law enforcement will be patrolling waters to uphold the regulations.
Ally Greco, director of communications at the Save The Manatee Club, said the high number of deaths in the Indian River Lagoon is a result of algae blooms that killed seagrass, a main source of food for the manatees, causing them to starve.
“Manatees gathering at warm water locations such as power plants along the Indian River Lagoon have faced an additional threat during the 2020-2021 winter season as there has been very little seagrass or vegetation for them to eat in the immediate vicinity,” the club said in an online press release.
“Traveling further for forage would mean deadly exposure to cold water, so the manatees ultimately choose to forgo feeding over dying from the cold.”
Both the FWC and the Save the Manatee Club are working to assist Florida’s manatees in regaining its food supply. According to the FWC website, the state invests $2 million annually to assist with manatee preservation, and the FWC is collecting data on what other specific causes may be contributing to the mass die-off.
The FWC also said it is conducting restoration projects in the affected areas to help the damaged habitat heal. The Save The Manatee Club said it is working to increase awareness of the issue and is helping to fund studies into what can be done to help the manatees prosper.