ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — State wildlife officials on Tuesday confirmed last year's manatee mortality figure was one of the worst in recent years, but 2021 continues to blow past an all-time high.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission confirmed 637 manatees died in 2020 in its final mortality report. Of those that received a necropsy — an autopsy in the animal world — the majority were considered perinatal deaths.
Those types of deaths include those "manatees less than or equal to 150 cm (5 feet) in total length which were not determined to have died due to human-related causes."
The next leading cause of death was watercraft-related, or those caused by humans.
This year, however, is shaping up to be the worst period on record for the Florida manatee. The FWC says there have been 968 deaths from Jan. 1 to Oct. 8, 2021, meeting the criteria to be declared an Unusual Mortality Event — one that has been confirmed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
There were 830 manatee deaths in 2013 alone, the previous all-time high that happened following a red tide outbreak, according to The Associated Press.
It's believed the recent large number of manatees that have died off of Florida's Atlantic coast was because of a decline in food availability. But the FWC earlier this summer said that since water temperatures have warmed, the animals have dispersed from their winter habitats to areas where food might be more abundant.
Republican U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan wrote a letter earlier this year to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consider the beloved manatee as "endangered" rather than its current "threatened" status given the dramatic increase in manatee deaths.
"Time is of the essence," Buchanan wrote.