- This number is much higher than any other year.
- The spike can be attributed to starvation.
- The state is attempting to feed manatees at a single location where they gather in winter.
Manatees in Florida reached another sad milestone with the end of 2021.
According to data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, eighteen manatees were killed in the week between Christmas and the New Year. This brought the total manatee deaths to 1,101 for the year. That’s the highest by far in records dating back to 1974.
“I’ve been studying manatees around 50 years and I am completely shocked and flabbergasted at this number,” James Powell, president of Clearwater Marine Aquarium, and executive director of its research center, told the Tampa Bay Times.
FWC claims its annual data are still preliminary. However, the previous record of 830 deaths per year was broken about halfway through 2021.
(MORE: Chessie, the Manatee, has disappeared since she was last seen in Florida months ago.)
Manatees have died at a higher rate than the five year average in three of the four years that have passed.
Many times, manatee deaths are caused by cold weather. However, the National Weather Service claims recent years have been the warmest in East Central Florida. This is where many of these deaths have occurred. Red tide was responsible for a large number of deaths in 2018, and 2019 saw an increase on boating deaths.
Manatee deaths at an unusually high rate in 2020 and 2021 could be attributed to starvation.
Hundreds of manatees died over those two years in the Indian River Lagoon, a 156-mile estuary that parallels the Atlantic Ocean shoreline on Florida’s East Coast. Manatees can use the shallow, brackish IRL as both a primary habitat or migration route.
In winter, thousands gather in the warm waters from the power plant located on Titusville’s lagoon, near the Kennedy Space Center in Brevard County.
The area’s seagrass – the vegetarian manatees’ main food source – has been killed off in recent years by algae blooms, poor water quality and other environmental issues. According to FWC, this left the lagoon empty and with very little food for manatees.
Last year, more than 350 manatees were killed in the IRL and its tributaries in Brevard County. Dozens more died in the four other counties that border the lagoon – Volusia, Indian River, St. Lucie and Martin.
While the agency’s data doesn’t specifically track deaths by starvation, many of those found dead – and many of the 159 rescued last year – showed signs of severe malnourishment.
The agency has declared the deaths an “Unusual Death Event” and launched an effort to feed the people who gather at the Titusville nuclear power plant.
The site has received very few visitors to date.
“Unseasonably warm weather means that manatees don’t yet gather in large numbers,” a FWC official stated in a Jan. 5 weekly update. “The few brief cold snaps we have witnessed were not enough to bring down water temperatures to the critical threshold where manatees seek warm water refuge.” Staff will continue monitoring weather patterns and manatee behavior at the aggregation sites along East Coast to find manatees in desperate need of rescue.
The FWC hadn’t reported any manatee deaths until Tuesday. Two manatees were rescued during the first week in January.
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