Florida officials hope a dramatic surge in manatee deaths is beginning to slow, a top wildlife director told state senators Monday, though the latest count shows more than 500 of the cherished creatures have died this year.
That death toll, 539 as of March 19, is about three times more than the 5-year average over the same period. Senators wondered what they and the public could do immediately to help manatees, but Gil McRae, director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, made clear that the problems contributing to the recent die-off may not be easily, or quickly, resolved.
“The first thing we need,” he said, “is for the event to conclude.”
Researchers, with federal help, are still trying to determine exactly what has caused so many manatees to die along the state’s East Coast, particularly in Brevard County. They have some ideas after examining dead and ailing manatees recovered since last December.
“Generally they have one thing in common,” McRae said. “They’re quite emaciated.”
The loss of seagrass beds in the Indian River Lagoon following years of harmful algal blooms is thought to have left manatees — a threatened species — without enough food. They swim into the Lagoon in bunches when cold weather hits each winter, drawn to warm water discharges from power plants.
As spring continues and water everywhere heats up, scientists are hopeful manatees will leave areas where their typical food sources are no longer so plentiful.
“We do know that manatees are on the move,” McRae said.
The end of the die-off might not come so easily, though, said Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, a nonprofit conservation group. Some animals that have survived the winter could still be sick.
“Even with more food in their stomach, there may be a significant number of them that still don’t make it,” he said.
Bringing back seagrass beds is a long-term challenge. It will involve a mix of dredging muck and cutting nutrient pollution to the waterway, McRae said.
“Improving water quality is always a good investment,” he told the elected officials on the state Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources. In the short term, a solution will not be as simple as just hand-feeding hungry manatees. McRae urged the public not to try, saying outside foods can bring new illnesses to manatees and change their natural behavior.
After this year, though, he said the state may need to think about some kind of supplemental feeding if resources remain scarce.
The best way to help now, McRae said, is for boaters and people on the water to report when they see a sick or dead manatee. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission urges callers to contact 888-404-3922 (FWCC) with such reports.
Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, asked whether scientists could coax manatees to leave spots without enough seagrass. McRae said researchers have considered that concept in exploring how to help manatees that have become reliant on power plant discharges, which will not be around forever.
Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, asked whether manatees could eventually adapt on their own and stop going to places without enough food.
Perhaps, McRae replied. But: “Keep in mind that the manatee is weighing keeping warm versus having food. And it seems as though keeping warm, especially when that temperature drops, is their primary motivation.”
Federal regulators in 2017 decided manatees should no longer be considered an endangered species, changing their status to threatened. Asked by Sen. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, about the health of the population overall, McRae said manatees were believed to be on “an up trajectory” before the latest die-off.
“We would expect that this particular event, unless it becomes more extreme than it is right now, wouldn’t result in a significant downturn — perhaps a flattening,” he said.
The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates at least 7,520 manatees are alive today.
Rose, who has criticized the status change as coming too soon, said manatees still face many threats — from boat collisions to Red Tide to sudden cold snaps and reductions in food — that leave him worried about the species’ outlook. The die-off, he said, should be a “wake-up call” about the effects of pollution in the state’s waterways.
“The manatees are again the sort of sentinel species that’s telling us something’s really broken here,” he said.