Manatee death rate spikes to highest number in nearly 50 years

Manatees are special sea mammals in Florida, but they’ve now reached a new milestone of more than 1,000 deaths so far this year heading into their toughest season.

On Wednesday, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported 1,003 manatee deaths to date this year, the highest number ever recorded since the deaths were tracked in the 1970s

That’s up from 498 deaths in 2020, 452 in 2019, and 746 deaths in 2018, according to the FWC.

ZooTampa has a Manatee Rehabilitation Center and cares for sick and injured manatees and orphaned calves. Director of Conservation Research and Behavior Tiffany Burns said manatees are unique to Florida and worth saving.

"They’re very slow-moving. They’re very inquisitive. They don’t seem to be bothered by anything. A lot of people here in Florida get to experience manatees firsthand. They get to see them in their natural habitat and you don’t get that with all animals," said Burns. "If you look at them, they’re just adorable. They have giant squishy faces, and they’re just curious."

Save The Manatee Club Executive Director Patrick Rose said it’s time for everyone to step up and help them now.

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"We're about ready to go back into a cycle where manatees are going to have to choose whether to stay warm enough or to literally die of starvation this coming winter," explained Rose.

A manatee was found dead on Fort DeSoto Beach on Wednesday, underscoring the problem. Rehabilitation centers like ZooTampa work to save them.

"We get a lot of animals here in the wintertime from cold stress where they haven’t had the ability to get to that warm water so their body almost gets like a frostbite," commented Burns, adding that the winter can be a challenging time as they compete for seagrass to eat in a small space and risk starvation.

Conservationists said manatees live off seagrass, but algae blooms are killing off their food. There’s also more pollution now, especially fertilizer runoff from agriculture use and nitrogen-rich fertilizers people use on lawns.

"We have more and more people moving to Florida and what they may not realize is they impact the species. Everything that they do, the clarity of the water, their decisions every day impact the water which impacts the species," said Burns.

ZooTampa said workers are caring for 18 to 22 manatees on average now, and that’s about double what they usually see. Conservation experts said it’s going to take teamwork of biologists, lawmakers and local residents to help save them.

"It’s a problem on the east coast right now, but it may become a problem on the west coast next year or the year after that. We really need to get ahead of it and make sure we correct the water quality problems, the vegetation problems we’re having on one coast and ensure that we prevent it from happening on the other," said Burns.
Rose said there is more that people can do to help the manatees.

"We can actually rescue those that are sick or injured, but we don't have enough space presently for all of them. So we've got to increase space immediately. We also need to be able to provide them on a targeted basis, some supplemental food and water," said Rose.

Manatees are currently listed as a "threatened" species, but wildlife experts said making them "endangered" would give manatees the extra support they need to survive. U.S. Representative Vern

Buchanan, R-Sarasota and Manatee, introduced a bill in Congress in October that aims to classify manatees as an endangered species in Florida.

MORE: ZooTampa: Manatees are starving in Florida, but you shouldn’t feed them in the wild

November is Manatee Appreciation Month, which is usually the time when the beloved sea cows are on the move to warmer waters as temperatures cool down in Florida. It's the reason why the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission chose the month to remind the public to keep an eye out for them – especially boaters. 

FWC offered boaters the following tips to help keep manatees safe:

  • Observe manatees from a distance to limit disturbance. Disturbing manatees at their warm-water sites may cause them to leave these areas during the winter.
  • Follow posted manatee protection zones.
  • Wear polarized sunglasses to spot them moving, grazing and resting in the water.
  • Keep a lookout for the circular "footprints" or ripples they leave on the surface of the water.
  • Follow manatee viewing guidelines and always observe manatees from a respectful distance.
  • Don’t feed or water manatees. Doing so is illegal and can put manatees at risk.
  • Report injured, entangled, orphaned or dead manatees to the FWC’s Wildlife Alert Hotline: 888-404-FWCC (3922), #FWC on your cellphone or text
  • Purchase a manatee decal or license plate and let your friends know how you’re helping support the FWC’s manatee conservation efforts.
  • Contribute to the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida’s Marine Mammal Fund by visiting and clicking on "Support Us," "Funding Priorities" and "Marine Mammal Fund."

LINK: For more information on FWC's efforts to protect manatees and how you can help, visit FWC's website.