The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said manatees are dying off at an unprecedented rate.
The organization said a lack of seagrass has led to malnutrition among manatees.
Officials said a number of carcasses were "severely emaciated," with some 40% below their expected body weight.
Hundreds of manatees are starving to death off the coast of Florida, and state officials say an ecosystem collapse could be to blame.
Preliminary state data shows that between January 1, 2021, and August 13, 2021, at least 912 manatees died off the coast of Florida - up from the average 578 annual manatee deaths between 2015 and 2020.
While more than 500 of the manatees were not necropsied, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said in its data that the unprecedented manatee mortality rate was likely due to starvation, specifically in Florida's Indian River Lagoon, where a lack of seagrass has led to malnutrition among the species.
Mike Walsh, a co-director of aquatic animal health at the University of Florida's College of Veterinary Medicine, told The Guardian that sea grass in the Indian River Lagoon was decimated by overgrazing and algal blooms that block sunlight.
Manatees still travel to the region in hopes of finding shelter in the warm water, heated by discharge from the Florida Power & Light Co. generating station, the Orlando Sentinel reported.
Martine de Wit, a veterinarian who necropsies manatees for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, told The Guardian a number of carcasses from the lagoon were "severely emaciated," with some 40% below their expected body weight.
Activists and researchers are now starting to monitor manatees, in hopes of finding protection plans for future winters, Monica Ross, a research scientist from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, told The Guardian.
But repairing the ecosystem of the Indian River Lagoon could cost $5 billion and take 20 years to complete, Duane De Freese, executive director of the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program, told the Orlando Sentinel.
"We are in a well-directed, running start," he said. "But we have a long race to run."
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