Islands near Merritt Island park now a 'manatee graveyard' as Florida sea cows starve

Jim Waymer
Florida Today

Scientists say Florida's most enamored marine mammal is starving to death.

On a recent Saturday, the Stasiks witnessed the famine in real time along the banks near Manatee Cove Park. The paradise they once padded through in this remote, mangrove-lined cove now looks lost — like an elephant graveyard. Except it's manatee bones that litter the shorelines, not tusks. 

Amid the bones lie the remains of a few other gentle marine giants, surrounded by vultures. The 13 carcasses the Stasiks recently counted there represent just one flashpoint in a much larger die off of Florida's best-known and beloved marine mammal this year, especially in the Indian River Lagoon.

Saved:Six stranded manatees rescued from Pine Island Conservation Island pond on Merritt Island

"This is the worst that I've ever seen," Phil Stasik, of Merritt Island, said via email. 

At least 674 manatees have died in Florida so far in 2021, four times the five-year average up to this point in the year, according to state wildlife officials. That includes 285 dead manatees (42%) in Brevard County.

Linda Stasik of Merritt Island paddles near Manatee Cove Park on Saturday, Feb. 27, where remains of more than a dozen dead manatees are sprawled along the shore. (Photo Credit: Phil Stasik)

Cold stress accounts for at least 52 of the deaths, or about 8%. For 452 others, almost 70%, the cause is unknown. Because of COVID-19 rules, a state lab tasked with examining dead manatees has only been able to salvage and examine thoseremains. So they're left to rot in places like the small spit of land off Manatee Cove. Watercraft collisions have killed only 14 so far this year, but typically account for about a quarter of manatee deaths.

Read more:Coronavirus complicates manatee deaths

Biologist suspect the sea cows are starving to death as the marine mammal's main diet of seagrass wilts under ongoing years-long ecological collapse, driven by excess algae.

"They are severely emaciated," Martine de Wit, a veterinarian with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said of the manatees she examines at FWC's marine pathology lab. "This is not the usual type of animal we see."

Half of the dead manatees are adults, she said. Their guts are empty, their fat and muscle depleted, their livers atrophied, and they show other signs of starvation.

"It is to an extent that I have not see before in manatees," de Wit said. "This is striking."

The ongoing seacow starvation comes as a crucial reproductive time approaches,  de Wit added, when lactating female manatees need nutrition, as will their young. 

Florida wildlife officials have asked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to declare the die-off an Unusual Marine Mammal Mortality Event, a designation that would trigger a formal federal investigation and funding for the response.

This year's deaths usher in the year's long "chicken vs.egg" debate between environment groups and boating advocates. Environment groups emphasize pollution killing seagrass. Boating advocates point to too many manatees being inthe wrong places at the wrong cold times, eating seagrass bottoms to moonscapes and leaving behind high-nutrient waste that fuels excess algae that blocks sunlight, stopping the grass from growing back.

"This shouldn't be a surprise," said Bob Atkins, president of Citizens for Florida's Waterways, a boating advocacy group based in Brevard. 

"Although we call them rivers, the IRL is really more like a lake," Atkins added. "A ‘closed system’. Everything flows into it and very little flows out."

Warm-water discharges from power plants such as the two 1960s-era power plants in Port St. Johns attract manatees to winter and forage seagrass there often beyond what can readily recover. 

A state and federal task force has for decades discussed ways to wean manatees off those warm-water discharges, but has yet to take concrete action to wean manatees off the power plant discharges. There are 67 known primary and secondary warm-water sites used by manatees in Florida, including 10 power plants, 23 springs and spring complexes, and 34 passive thermal basins, according to the task force's habitat action plan.

"We have been warning the agencies for years that either we eliminate the artificial warm-water outflows and risk some manatees not returning ... or do nothing and keep stressing the system until the loss of seagrass threatens the life of the IRL itself and everything dies including many more manatees," Atkins said.

The lagoon does not have "a boundless capacity to support ever-increasing pressure on the vegetative mass," he added. "There is a calculable carrying capacity," he said, and the Endangered Species Act requires the agencies to determine it, "but they have not."

De Wit counters that human pollution is responsible for the loss of seagrass, not manatees. 

De Wit notes the lagoon's seagrass began plummeting around 2011 after a widespread "superbloom" of algae clouded sunlight from reaching seagrass for months. Since 2009, almost 60% of the lagoon's seagrass has vanished, according to the St. Johns River Water Management District, wilting away under the onslaught of repeated algae blooms that followed the so-called "superbloom." The grasshas barelyrecovered since, district surveys have found.

"That does not have anything to do with the manatees," de Wit said. "There are not enough manatees to affect the water quality."

After the lagoon's 2011 "superbloom" killed off 60% of the estuary's seagrass, manatees began instead eating more of the stringy "drift" algae and other less nutritious plants the float in the lagoon.

By 2016, FWC biologists were seeing malnourished manatees dying from some sort of chain reaction that affected their nervous systems, causing them to in effect drown. De Wit at the time likened the mysterious manatee syndrome to when people visit foreign countries and get sick from the food or water.

In an editorial on Save the Manatee Club's website last month, the nonprofit's executive director Patrick Rose, chastised federal wildlife officials for not adequately funding and staffing manatee recovery efforts.

"Ironically, these devastating losses are occurring while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has been preoccupied with downgrading the protected status for manatees and refusing to implement the very recovery measures that allowed the manatee population to grow over previous decades since their original classification as endangered in 1967," Rose wrote.

He called for emergency government funding for manatee rescue and recovery efforts.

To report a sick, injured or dead manatee, contact the FWC hotline at 888-404-3922, and press *7 to speak with an operator.

Jim Waymer is environment reporter at FLORIDA TODAY.

Contact Waymer at 321-242-3663                                         

or jwaymer@floridatoday.com.

Twitter: @JWayEnviro

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