Florida Manatees Died at an Alarming Rate in the First Months of 2021

More than 10 p.c of Florida’s estimated manatee inhabitants has died since the begin of the yr, already surpassing the complete quantity of manatee deaths in 2020, in response to state wildlife officers.

A current report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission discovered there have been at least 761 manatee deaths from Jan. 1 to May 28, in contrast with 637 all final yr. At this charge, the 2021 complete is nicely on its technique to surpassing the highest year-end complete in at least the final 5 years, when the fee recorded 824 deaths in 2018.

Experts consider that one purpose for the deaths is that the Indian River Lagoon, a 156-mile estuary alongside Florida’s Atlantic coast in whose heat waters manatees forage yearly, has misplaced tens of 1000’s of acres of sea grass. Water high quality has worsened for years as a result of of runoff from fertilizers, sewage and septic leaks, growing algae blooms that kill the sea grass, stated Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

“All those sources contribute to the influx of nitrogen and phosphorus in the area and serves as a steroid for algae,” she stated, including that sea grass die-offs have been documented for years.

The sea grass’s footprint in the lagoon has decreased by 58 p.c since 2009, in response to Charles Jacoby of the St. Johns River Water Management District.

“The lagoon is like a desert,” stated Martine de Wit, a veterinarian with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “This past winter, it was hardly growing anything” and the manatees didn’t have an different to sea grass.

Ms. Lopez stated large bloom of algae “tends to soak up all the oxygen in the water and it shades out the sunlight” from the sea grass.

When the water will get cloudy, she stated, the sea grass dies.

“If there is no sea grass for the manatees, there is also no sea grass for other species,” she stated. “The fact that manatees are dying from starvation signals there is something very wrong with the water quality.”

But there are different threats resulting in the manatee deaths, together with publicity to chilly temperatures and collisions with boats. Forty-nine of this yr’s deaths had been attributed to watercraft collisions.

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Manatees gathered close to the warm-water discharge of a South Florida plant in February.Credit…Greg Lovett/The Palm Beach Post, by way of Associated Press

An unofficial mascot of Florida generally known as a sea cow, the rotund manatee is a big, slow-moving aquatic mammal. There are about 6,300 manatees in Florida, in response to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. During colder climate, they have an inclination to congregate close to South Florida energy vegetation, the place they lounge in the heat water discharge.

They are federally protected beneath the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Manatees are additionally protected by the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978, which states that “it is unlawful for any person, at any time, intentionally or negligently, to annoy, molest, harass or disturb any manatee.”

Patrick Rose, an aquatic biologist and the govt director of the nonprofit Save the Manatee Club, described manatees as a “sentinel species telling us that the ecosystem is in a catastrophic state of decline.”

He stated manatees are like “gardeners of the aquatic ecosystem,” serving to the sea grass grow to be extra productive.

They will frivolously graze on the sea grass and transfer on, stimulating extra progress, he stated, thus enabling different species, corresponding to rays and sea turtles, to feed on the grass.

To assist shield the lagoon and different state waterways, the St. Johns River water district urges the public to make use of fertilizers properly — solely when lawns present want, and by no means simply earlier than rain — and to connect with a central sewer system the place doable.

Catrin Einhorn contributed reporting.