ORLANDO, Fla. — With manatee deaths mounting in Florida, groups trying to help the sea cows now have access to a federal-government-run fund.

What You Need To Know

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the growing number of manatee deaths in Florida a "Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Event", a designation that's been declared only 71 times since 1991.

State data shows of the more than 6,500 manatees in the state. So far this year, nearly 600 have died.


About 30% of deaths happened in the Indian River Lagoon, which starts in Volusia County and stretches 156 miles south, into South Florida.

"It’s not a large percentage, but it’s about three times the amount of mortality we should be having," said Patrick Rose, executive director of Save the Manatee Club.

He said the lagoon in Brevard County is a problem area with about 250 deaths, with a cold winter and less seagrass to eat in places where manatees congregate to stay warm, such as near power plants.

“It’s really important that it is warming because that gives the manatees the chance to leave the confines of the area around the artificial warm water, and spread out to the rivers and creeks and other backwater areas where there’s likely to be food for them," Rose said.

Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Winter Park, sent a letter, dated, March 8, to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, requesting the agency consider the situation a Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Event.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said on March 24 that the FWS had done so. 

This unlocks money from the Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Event Contingency Fund. It was established by Congress in 1922 to get private donations to respond to these events. The money is used to reimburse costs incurred by network partners.

“This provides very critical federal funding that allows the local experts to figure out the scale of the problem," Murphy said. "They'd have the resources to rescue the distressed manatees, they have resources to increase the capacity at rehabilitation locations, and also could relocate some of the manatees to other areas where the food source isn't so scarce."


Rose met with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service leaders this week and says more needs to be done now ahead of next winter.

"Document a plan, literally step by step, how we're going to get this turned around, so the seagrass recovery can begin," he said.

FWC said rescuing live manatees that need help remains a top priority.

If you see a manatee that is in distress or is dead, contact FWC at 1-888-404-FWCC, or dial #FWC from a cell phone.

Anyone can donate to the UME Contingency Fund by going to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website.