TALLAHASSEE, FL – According to troubling reports, the manatee population in Florida is dying off at a very high rate so far in 2021 due to the loss of a key food source that the iconic creatures need to survive.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recently released a report that has revealed that, as of May 28, 761 manatees have died so far this year; this puts 2021 on a pathway to likely exceed the previous record of 804 deaths in 2018, according to Jon Moore, a marine biologist and oceanographer at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.
“If this continues through the rest of the year, this is going to be one of the highest mortality years ever,” he said.
Toxic red tides and overgrowths of algae, known as algal blooms, have contributed to the increasingly polluted quality of Florida’s waterways, which in turn is killing off a key food source for manatees- seagrass, seaweed-like plants that grow underwater, and without them the marine mammals are facing malnourishment and starvation.
“The algal blooms are clouding the water and cutting off light, so the seagrass can’t photosynthesize and sustain themselves,” Moore said.
The St. Johns River Water Management District notes that approximately 58 percent of seagrass in the Indian River Lagoon – a 150-mile estuary where manatees are known to gather to feed annually – has been destroyed since 2009.
Algal blooms, according to executive director of Save the Manatee Club Patrick Rose, are created in large part by nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous – typically from human waste – leaching into waterways, and this issue may also start to impact other creatures that call the waterways of Florida home as well.
“If we don’t take care of our human waste stream, it won’t just go away,” he said. “These natural systems can only absorb so much before they begin to fail, and in these cases, fail catastrophically.”
While previously classified as “endangered” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, manatees were downgraded to a “threatened” species in 2017; however, with the huge uptick in deaths recently, it’s likely that decision will be revisited, Moore said.
“This year’s mortality event may require greater protection for manatees, and we might need to bump them back up into endangered status,” he said.