Manatee Awareness Month highlights need to protect as population faces alarming number of deaths in 2021

This year's Manatee Awareness Month arrives as the state grapples with an alarming rate of manatee deaths in 2021.

November 1 marks the start of Manatee Awareness 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. 

Injuries to manatees from boat strikes are more common during this time of the year, FWC says, as the migrating sea cows venture into areas frequented by boats. They typically head to Florida's spring waters, which are natural warm-water habitats. They also make their way to areas like the TECO Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach, which reopened. It was closed for over a year due to the pandemic.

MORE: Closed for over a year, Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach final reopens

This year, nearly 15% of the manatee population has died, which is close to 1,000. The die-off has been declared an unusual mortality event. The first six months of this year exceed the previous record of 830 manatee deaths, recorded in all of 2013. The death rate has been declared an unusual mortality event, triggering a federal investigation into the spike. 

RELATED: Florida shatters annual manatee death record in first 6 months

Manatees’ primary food source is seagrass. One of the main causes of manatee deaths in Florida is due to starvation because poor water quality has caused significant seagrass loss. More than half of those deaths happened in Indian River Lagoon – where, FWC says, water quality problems are killing seagrass, which manatees eat.

Florida manatees had been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1973. Manatees were listed as endangered until 2017, when they were downlisted to "threatened."

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

In 2017, there were 6,000 manatees in Florida thanks to conservation efforts that helped grow the manatee population. In 2019, the manatee population had dropped to 5,733.

In August, Rep. Vern Buchanan of Sarasota and Rep. Darren Soto, of Kissimmee introduced new legislation to protect manatees. The bipartisan Manatee Protection Act would officially upgrade the West Indian manatee from "threatened" to "endangered" under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). 

That change in status would require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to refocus its attention on manatee population rehabilitation. It would also allow for increased federal resources to be put toward manatee rehabilitation.

FWC says most of the gentle giants starved to death in the colder months while migrating through the Indian River Lagoon on the east coast, where algae in the estuary have led to seagrass loss.

"What that does is that it decreases the amount of light that hits the bottom. And with the decrease in light, then that shades out the seagrass, which then dies," explained James Powell, Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute’s executive director.

If you see a sick, injured, distressed, or dead manatee, you’re urged to call the FWC wildlife alert hotline by calling 888-404-FWCC (3922).

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.