TAMPA, Fla. - Manatees are dying across Florida at an alarming rate. In just the first three months of the year, more than 600 have been killed -- nearly seven manatee deaths a day, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The numbers are so high, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association has declared the deaths a "marine mammal unusual mortality event," triggering an investigation into the spike in deaths.
At the manatee critical care center at ZooTampa, 21 sick, injured, or orphaned manatees are being cared for. The facility is one of four manatee hospitals in the state and they are all close to max capacity.
Animal Care Manager Molly Lippincott said they're seeing lots of injuries.
"To have this many come in in a short period is definitely unique for us," Lippincott said. "We’ve had 15 come in since the beginning of the year."
She says the gentle giants are threatened by cold temperatures, reduced access to food, red tide and boat strikes. ZooTampa is trying to save as many as they can.
"I’m very concerned for the species as a whole," said Lippincott.
While hospitalization numbers are surging, manatees are dying at a rapid rate.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, from January 1 through April 2 of this year at least 613 manatees have died. That is more than three times the normal amount, and close to the total of 637 manatee deaths FWC logged in all of 2020.
At this rate, 2021 could surpass the record of 830 manatee deaths set in 2013.
"There’s not that many in the population and to have such a large majority already dying and to not even understand exactly why they’re passing away, that’s really a cause for concern," Lippincott said.
There is also a push to figure out what is causing the ongoing die-off of the sea cows.
The numbers are much higher on the East Coast of the state where manatees are starving from a lack of seagrass.