Florida’s manatees are dying in record numbers, and it seems that some of them are malnourished and even starving. “If this continues through the rest of the year, this is going to be one of the highest mortality years ever,” said Jon Moore, a marine biologist at Florida Atlantic University.
A new report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recorded 761 manatee deaths from January 1 to May 28, representing more than 10 percent of the entire manatee population, and more than the total number of deaths for all of last year. Scientists say the total deaths could exceed 1,000 by the end of the year.
The primary problem is a loss of food source. Indeed, many manatees have washed up on shore, emaciated. It appears they may have starved to death. (Adult manatees are about ten feet long and weigh 1,000 pounds.)
Manatees exist on seagrass, seaweed-like plants that grow underwater. But wastewater contamination and nutrient runoff that triggers toxic red tides (and the growth of algae) are killing the seagrass.
The St. Johns River Water Management District, for example, reports that 58 percent of the seagrass in the 150-mile-long Indian River Lagoon, a manatee favorite, has been wiped out since 2009. About a quarter of the entire manatee population goes there during the cold months, drawn by the warm water discharge from the Titusville power plant.
“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Jaclyn Lopez, the Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “I think it’s fair to call it a crisis.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed manatees as an “endangered” species until 2017, when it downgraded their status to “threatened.” Some Florida marine scientists say the Service may need to rethink that classification. Read more: