ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — It was a morbid year for manatees in Florida with mortality rates reaching an all-time high.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reports a record-breaking 1,101 manatees have died since Jan. 1, 2021, compared to the confirmed 637 manatees that died in 2020, per its final mortality report.
While 640 of the mammals, noted in the yearly summary manatee mortality table, died and were not necropsied — an animal autopsy — the majority had natural, perinatal, or watercraft-related deaths.
FWC reports 110 manatees had perinatal deaths, while 184 experienced natural deaths and 103 had run-ins with watercraft.
A perinatal death includes 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."
So, why are manatees dying at such high rates off the Atlantic coast? FWC says it is still investigating but that an initial assessment indicated a high number are emaciated due to a decline in seagrass and macroalgae.
"Improving water clarity and light penetration is essential for the restoration of healthy seagrass communities," the state agency's website reads.
Seagrass, like other plants, needs sunlight to grow; but persistent algal blooms have stunted its ability to do so dramatically. As a result, the primary food source for manatees has been scarce.
The Florida manatee is a native species that can be found in multiple waterways across the state. According to FWC, there are an estimated 7,520 to 10,280 manatees statewide today, reclassifying them from an endangered species in 2017.
Republican U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan would like to change that. He wrote a letter earlier this year to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asking for the beloved manatee to be considered as "endangered" rather than its current "threatened" status given the dramatic increase in manatee deaths.
"Time is of the essence," Buchanan wrote.
Efforts to help save the sea cows have taken shape with the FWC and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partnering to combat the Unusual Mortality Event (UME).
“We take this situation seriously and are committed to working with our partners including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to explore short-term solutions to the die-off, as well as much-needed long-term solutions to restoring the lagoon ecosystem,” FWC Chairman Rodney Barreto wrote in a statement.
If you see a dead, sick, or injured manatee you are asked to contact the FWC's Wildlife Alert Hotline at 1-888-404-3922 or by dialing #FWC on a cellphone.