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Rise in Florida manatee deaths declared Unusual Mortality Event, prompting federal investigation

The federal government will investigate and work with local groups to determine what's causing the deaths.
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

FLORIDA, USA — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will begin investigating the recent spike in Florida manatee deaths after declaring the increase an Unusual Mortality Event (UME).

The investigation is in response to a letter sent by U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Florida. She urged the federal agency to look into what has contributed to the spike in manatee deaths between Jan. 1 and Feb. 26 of this year. 

In that time period, more than 300 manatees deaths were reported by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission -- nearly half the number of deaths that occurred in all of 2020.

A Marine Mammal UME is defined as "a stranding that is unexpected; involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population; and demands immediate response," according to the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Now that the rise in deaths has been declared a UME, US FWS will investigate and work with local groups to determine what's causing the deaths, the effect it's having on the manatee's population and what role the environment is playing in the event.

Florida is currently on pace for one of the deadliest years for manatees in a decade.

A report by Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission shows 539 manatee deaths in 2021, nearly three times the five-year average over the same period of time. The largest number of deaths is in Brevard County, with 179. Officials say many of those deaths occurred along the Indian River, which is a common warm water gathering place.

However, the cause of death for a majority of these mammals has not yet been determined. 

The Daytona Beach News-Journal reported that since 2009, 58 percent of the seagrass in the lagoon system has disappeared, choked off from sunlight as a result of an over-saturation of nutrients in the water. Seagrass is food for hundreds of thousands of animals and home to even more. The loss of seagrass has been especially hard on the manatees that graze on it. 

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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