2021 is already the deadliest year on record for Florida manatees. Why are they dying?
More manatees have already died in 2021 than any other year in Florida's history, as biologists point to seagrass loss in the Indian River Lagoon as a catalyst for starvation and malnutrition.
At least 841 manatees have died in Florida waters, mostly in Brevard County's stretch of the 156-mile-long lagoon, from Jan. 1 to July 2, according to the latest Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission data available Friday.
That breaks the previous record set in 2013, when 830 manatees died after exposure to red tide toxins killed many of the sea cows.
Nearly 53% of dead manatees this year were found in one of the five counties the Iagoon runs through: Volusia, Brevard, Indian River, St. Lucie and Martin. The overwhelming majority has been in Brevard, where a record 312 manatees have died.
"Unprecedented manatee mortality due to starvation was documented on the Atlantic coast this past winter and spring," Florida's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute wrote as it announced the record Friday. "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."
As temperatures warmed and manatees on the Atlantic coast dispersed, boat strikes again became the leading cause of death for the sea cows in June, according to FWRI. So far this year, 63 manatees have been struck and killed by boats.
Boat strikes "underscore the need for previously identified threats such as watercraft-related mortality to continue to be recognized as a concern for the population," according to FWRI.
Is Florida doing anything about the manatees dying?
The die-off got the attention of marine biologists, lawmakers and manatee lovers throughout the state as news of the crisis spread nationwide.
In March, wildlife officials declared the deaths an Unusual Mortality Event, which allows the federal government to work with the state and nonprofits to investigate the cause and take quick action to prevent more manatees from dying.
While the investigation hasn't declared an official cause, some biologists believe decades of human-caused water pollution have choked enough seagrass beds to leave the marine mammals struggling to find adequate food sources.
Florida wildlife officials will receive another $8 million this year — more than double the usual amount allocated for manatee recovery — to help manatees rebound from the record-breaking die-off. The money likely will go toward habitat rehabilitation.
A coalition of 16 concerned environmental groups and clean water-dependent businesses in June urged Gov. Ron DeSantis to declare a state of emergency to address the manatee crisis and the ecologically suffering lagoon.
Florida Department of Environmental Protection officials said an emergency order isn't necessary, as the state is using its resources to respond to the crisis with the help of local governments and citizen organizations, said spokesperson Dee Ann Miller.
"The evidence is overwhelming and indisputable," the coalition wrote to DeSantis, "that the Indian River Lagoon, one of the most biodiverse estuaries in North America, has become an unhealthy, algae-dominated ecosystem."
How are federal leaders responding?
The U.S. Department of Interior down-listed the West Indian manatee in 2017, changing its status from "endangered" to "threatened" under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Despite thousands of letters opposing the reclassification, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service reclassified the marine mammals, citing conservation efforts leading to an increase in manatee populations and an overall improvement to habitat.
As manatee deaths rocketed in the first three months of this year, environmentalists and conservation advocates returned to this 2017 decision.
"We felt that was very much premature," Pat Rose, an aquatic biologist and executive director of the nonprofit Save the Manatee Club, said. U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, urged federal wildlife leaders to upgrade the animal’s protected status in a June 14 letter.
Children have joined the cause too. The youth environmental nonprofit RiverKidz gathered in June to write letters to the U.S. Department of Interior to reinstate manatees on the endangered species list.
U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, wants to increase federal funding to local governments and nonprofits for rescue and rehabilitation of sick and injured marine mammals throughout the nation and in Florida.
Mast has introduced the Marine Mammal Research and Response Act. Democrat Stephanie Murphy, who represents portions of the Orlando area, is a cosponsor. The legislation could bring $7 million a year to protect marine mammals and study their deaths.
Congressional leaders are looking to update the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and reauthorize the John H. Prescott Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Grant Program. The bipartisan legislation would allocate at least $42 million over six years to help with the recovery, care and treatment of sick, injured and entangled marine mammals.
Beginning this year, up to $7 million annually in grants could be provided, with $500,000 available for a specific rapid-response program. Each grant likely would be up to $150,000, according to the bill.
The program also would help create a database for sick or dead marine mammals, to aid agencies like the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to better study broader trends to these deaths.
What's causing the record manatee die-off?
Evidence from the die-off shows people are to blame for years of polluting the waterway through urban and agricultural development. Much of the resulting nitrogen and phosphorus that feeds algal blooms comes from fertilizer runoff and sewage leaks.
Blooms kill seagrass — manatees' main food source — by robbing the water of oxygen and sunlight the grass needs to grow, said Dennis Hanisak, director of the Marine Ecosystem Health program at Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce.
"The long-term health effects of prolonged starvation in manatees that survived the Atlantic event to this point are not yet known," the FWRI wrote Friday.
People should heed the warning from the spike in manatee deaths, said Edie Widder, head of Ocean Research & Conservation Association, a clean-water research, education and advocacy group in Fort Pierce.
"They are a mayday call for the environment," Widder said. "We're mammals, like these same mammals, and these are warning us that we're contaminating our environment in all kinds of scary ways."
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This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: Florida manatees: 2021 a record year for deaths due to seagrass loss