More manatees have already died in Florida this year than in any other year in the state’s recorded history – prompting a federal investigation and calls to re-classify the marine mammals as an endangered species.
The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission reported that 841 manatee deaths were recorded between Jan. 1 and July 2, breaking the previous record of 830 that died in 2013 because of an outbreak of toxic red tide.
That figure represents a staggering mortality rate that more than doubles the total deaths recorded during the same period last year – 354 manatees died in the same period in 2020.
Starvation is believed to be the leading cause of death among manatees this year, and researchers have pointed to a widespread decline in seagrass, their primary food source, as the main culprit.
“Unprecedented manatee mortality due to starvation was documented on the Atlantic coast this past winter and spring,” the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission said as it announced the figures. “Most deaths occurred during the colder months when manatees migrated to and through the Indian River Lagoon where the majority of seagrass has died off.”
Tens of thousands of acres of seagrass in the Indian River Lagoon has died off in recent years, due in large part to extreme weather conditions and water pollution. “The major issues we are seeing here are degrading water quality that is coming from fertilizer, leaking septic tanks, runoff,” Cora Berchem, Save the Manatee Club’s Director of Multimedia and Manatee Research Associate, told Spectrum News.
And more broadly, the water pollution that has contributed to the manatee deaths is a “canary in the coalmine” for all Florida communities, Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., said in an interview with Spectrum News.
“When you look at what's going on with our waterways; why these manatees are suffering these fates, it’s twofold: one, because of the kill-off of seagrass, which is happening because of discharges out of Lake Okeechobee, and [two], because of the toxic chemicals that are being sprayed into our waterways to manage invasive plant species,” Rep. Mast added.
At the end of the day, Mast said, “thousands and thousands of gallons” of toxic chemicals are being dumped into Florida’s waterways – “all with warnings on them that that, say, ’wear rubber gloves,’ ‘wear a rubber apron,’ ‘if it gets in your eyes, you might go blind,’ ‘if you drink it, you're going to die.’ And that's being dumped into the water that these manatees are in.”
In March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the manatee die-off as an "Unusual Mortality Event,” or a UME – a designation that allows the federal government to begin investigating the high mortality rates. It also opens up additional funding to local governments and experts to help prevent further species decline.
Still, Florida lawmakers say more must be done to help offset the spike in deaths.
To that end, Mast and another Florida House member, Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., introduced the Marine Mammal Research and Response Act – new legislation that would increase federal funding to $7 million dollars a year to help protect the species.
“If we can increase these resources, it would help local governments and nonprofit organizations in their efforts to rescue and rehabilitate sick and injured marine mammal mammals,” Murphy told Spectrum News.
The bill would help “not just protect” the species, Mast said, but would “help respond to these Manatees' deaths, [or] when you see Manatees in critical condition.”
Murphy said she is optimistic about the bill’s passage. “I think that because it's bipartisan and has good support, I'm hopeful that we'll be able to get it into law,” she said. “I anticipate that there'll be a hearing on the bill in the next couple of weeks, and I plan to speak at that and to encourage my colleagues to support it.”
The West Indian manatee was classified as an endangered species by the federal government in the 1970s. But in 2017, the U.S. Department of the Interior downgraded the species to “threatened” – a designation that many environmentalists and advocates say was premature.
“It was cutting federal funding, it was giving the public the wrong impression that Manatees were out of the woods, recovered,” Berchem said of the new classification. Although she conceded that the manatee population had increased in the years leading up to 2017, “the threats have increased as well.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it is conducting a new assessment on the West Indian Manatee, slated to be complete in 2022. Its results will inform the next status review in five years – but experts fear that, if current trends continue, the species will be near extinction again.
“If we wait five years to take action for them, that’s way too late,” Berchem told Spectrum News.
“The trends that we are seeing with these deaths certainly would put them in that endangered category,” Mast added.