As Florida manatee deaths spike, FWC addresses Senate on crisis, seagrass loss
As manatee deaths spike to over 500 across Florida this year, a top wildlife official Monday outlined to state senators the scope of the ongoing die-off, including the rescue efforts of more than 50 at-risk manatees since Jan. 1.
At least 539 manatees have died in Florida waters from Jan. 1 through March 19, compared to 637 in all of 2020 and a near-record 804 in all of 2018, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission data shows.
The majority of deaths this year occurred between Brevard and Broward counties, specifically in the 156-mile-long Indian River Lagoon, according to FWC.
A Stuart resident found and reported a dead manatee floating overturned in a canal Monday morning.
A decline in seagrass habitat is leaving manatees starved and without adequate food supply, biologists say. A colder-than-normal December, followed by moderate cold snaps this year, had the warm-blooded animals gathering around artificial warm-water sites, like power plants, without enough food for all of them.
Water pollution, including a 2011 brown tide and 2016 Lake Okeechobee discharges, are blamed for wiping out nearly 65% of lagoon seagrasses.
"The timing of the deaths is associated with manatees aggregating at warm-water sites, and we believe there's an interaction between large numbers of manatees at these warm-water sites and food availability," Gil McRae, director of the FWC's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, told members of the Florida Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee Monday.
The cause of death is unknown for 372 manatees — nearly 70% — as their bodies were too decomposed to necropsy, FWC data shows. Biologists determined 27 deaths were from cold stress and 20 were from boat strikes, compared to 52 and 90 respectively in all of 2020.
If the current death rate continues, the state could surpass the record of 830 manatee deaths set in 2013.
Dead manatee found in Martin County
A dead manatee was found overturned in a canal at Mariner Cay Marina in Stuart Monday morning and reported to FWC, said resident Julia Sansevere, who found the animal.
Sansevere said she was sad when she "saw that poor manatee on its back with its flippers in the air, so helpless," she told TCPalm. "We just need to keep reminding people that we share this planet with other forms of life and we need to respect that."
Sansevere said she couldn't tell what killed the manatee, but the animal was covered in flies when she reported it to FWC officials.
Future protection measures for the gentle marine mammals should include relocating the animals away from artificial warm-water sites and into natural waterways, and also a heightened focus on water quality and seagrass habitat improvements, McRae said.
"It is high time we consider a strategy that somehow moves as many manatees as possible off those artificial sites onto natural sites," McRae said. "Better water quality will bring back the seagrass quicker."
McRae said the best way the public can get involved is to report any sick, injured or dead manatees to the FWC, but cautioned that feeding the animals is illegal.
Report sick, injured, dead manatees
Contact FWC's Wildlife Alert Hotline by calling toll-free at 888-404-3922 (FWCC), emailing Tip@MyFWC.com or using VHF Channel 16 on your boat.
Manatee protection for boaters
- Consult a boater’s guide for each county you visit to learn the manatee speed zones.
- Obey posted speed zone signs and keep away from posted manatee sanctuaries.
- Avoid seagrass beds and shallow areas where manatees might be feeding.
- Stay in deep-water channels, but beware manatees travel in them too.
- Don't jet ski, water ski or do other high-speed watersports where manatees frequent. Stick to land-locked lakes or waters well offshore.
- Wear polarized glasses to eliminate the sun's glare and see below the water surface.
- Look for a snout, back, tail, flipper as well as a flat spot or swirl of water, which manatees create when they flap their tail to dive or swim.
- Remain at least 50 feet away from a manatee and cut your motor to sit and observe it. Remember, it is illegal to feed and give water to manatees.
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Max Chesnes is a TCPalm environment reporter covering issues facing the Indian River Lagoon, St. Lucie River and Lake Okeechobee. You can keep up with Max on Twitter @MaxChesnes, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and give him a call at 772-978-2224.