Pensacola, Florida (PNJ) -- As we Floridians watch the last few days wind down until the newyear, we can say one thing for certain about 2013: it was not the yearof the manatee.

For the first time sincerecord-keeping began in the 1970s, our state's manatee death tollreached 800 in a single year. According to officials, that's almost 16percent of the estimated population of 5,000 - a huge hit to thesustainability of any lifeform.

Reporting for the Tampa Bay Times last week, former Pensacola News Journal writer Craig Pittman putthe current death toll in perspective, pointing out that in 2012 it wasonly 392, which officials say is closer to the norm.

What'seven more tragic about this year's number is that 173 of the dead werebreeding-age females. The previous high mark for manatee deaths came in2010 due to a prolonged cold snap, but the temperatures mostly hityounger manatees that were not yet breeding age.

Pittman points out that there are dual causes for this year's inflated numbers:

"Firsta massive bloom of Red Tide algae along the state's southwestern coastcaused 276 deaths early in the year. Red Tide has been around forcenturies and has killed manatees before. But this year was the worstRed Tide die-off ever recorded. Meanwhile, a mysterious ailment has beenkilling manatees in the Indian River Lagoon on the state's east coast.All told, 117 manatees have died in the Indian River Lagoon since July2012 .... No one can explain the die-off, which appears to beunprecedented."

Evenas scientists are at work pinpointing the poison in the Indian RiverLagoon that has caused the manatee deaths, as well as a massive die-offof fish, dolphins and pelicans, it looks like the mortality is,unsurprisingly, man-made.

Sewage,runoff and leaky septic tanks surround and seep into the lagoon. Andnutrient-rich freshwater runoff from Lake Okeechobee is just fuel forRed Tide blooms. It's the story of our state. We came, we saw and thenwe conquered paradise. Conquered it to death.

Floridais suffering environmentally, which will cause it to suffereconomically. Watching 800 manatees die in Florida waters is what itwould be like to see Mickey, Minnie and Pluto kick the bucket in themiddle of the Magic Kingdom. Even from a purely profit-mindedperspective - that's just bad for business.

Floridaneeds to get serious about self-preservation. That will take seriousmoney, serious science and serious, long-term planning. Because in astate so dependent on our aquatic environments, looking to 2014 andbeyond, manatees just might be Florida's version of a canary in a coalmine.

Another deadly year like this will force Floridians to take a lookaround at the waters around us and wonder who's next.

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