Wildlife experts grapple with 'disturbing' rate of manatee deaths

2021 is a little more than halfway over, but it’s already the deadliest year on record for Florida’s manatees.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) says the unprecedented manatee deaths are happening because of seagrass loss and starvation. Experts are still working to figure out the solution and it’s challenging.

At least 841 manatees have died from January 1 through July 2.

"It's disturbing, it's really disturbing," said Dr. Cynthia Stringfield, the vice president of animal health conservation and education at ZooTampa.

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.

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"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.

The first six months of this year tops the previous record of 830 manatee deaths that were recorded in all of 2013. The die-off has been declared an unusual mortality event, triggering a federal investigation into the spike in deaths.

(Courtesy: Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium)

In the Bay Area, Pinellas and Hillsborough County have recorded the most manatee deaths, with 26 and 24, respectively. There have also been handfuls of deaths in Manatee, Sarasota, and Pasco counties.

"It's very complex. It has to do with nutrients flowing into the lagoon over there and trying to go back and fix a system that's basically out of balance," Powell said.

ZooTampa at Lowry Park is helping the mammals rebound from the record-breaking die-off.

"We have had the most animals that we have had as well. And we're not even getting those animals," said Stringfield.

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The zoo’s manatee critical care center currently has 20 sick, injured or orphaned manatees. The facility is one of four hospitals in the state, all of which have been close to their max capacity for months.

So far, 68 sea cows have died in the waters in the Tampa Bay region.

According to the FWC, most of them have been due to boat strikes or red tide.

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"Really what this is and should be for everyone is a wake-up call," said. Powell. "We've got to do something not only to save manatees but to save the habitat that they live in."

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).