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State and federal leaders partner to save Florida's manatees amid record-breaking die-off

They worry some manatees are starving due to a lack of forage.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — State and federal leaders are teaming up to address Florida's record-breaking spike in manatee deaths along the Atlantic coast.

So far in 2021, more than 1,000 sea cows deaths have been reported in Florida, shattering the previous high. That represents more than 10 percent of the state's estimated manatee population.

On Thursday, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conversation Commission (FWC) announced it was partnering with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) to combat the Unusual Mortality Event (UME).

The agencies formed a joint incident management team to oversee response logistics through the winter.

“Service and FWC staff, along with the Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Partnership, have been actively responding to the UME and are further strengthening their response as this unprecedented emergency continues to unfold,” wrote Shannon Estenoz, the Interior Department's assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, in a statement.

Estenoz said setting up the joint team will streamline the response to the crisis, ensuring first responders can quickly get the resources they need to help the animals.

“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.

So, why are manatees dying off more this year than before? One explanation, researchers say, is that manatees have been starving due to a lack of food in Indian River Lagoon. The lagoon had long provided a habitat for manatees year-round, which especially helped them during the cold, winter months.

"The starvation of manatees because their food, seagrasses, has disappeared as a cause from nutrient loading must be a wakeup call," Dr. James Powell, president of Clearwater Marine Aquarium, explained. "Our waterways are becoming sick and dying, manatees are a victim, we must do more to address the underlying and complex causes."

As Barreto noted, work is underway to find ways to restore the health of the lagoon. And, research continues to identify and address other causes of manatee deaths, too.

Anyone who sees a distressed, injured or dead manatee should report it to the FWC Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-3922.