Florida manatees are dying at an alarming rate in the first two months of 2021, more than tripling the normal amount of fatalities seen during the same period over the last five years.

By RICHARD TRIBOU

FORT MYERS, Fla. – It’s already been a deadly year for Florida manatees

More sea cows deaths have been documented through the first two months of the year than were recorded during those same two months in 2019 and 2020 combined, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission records. 

Through Feb. 12, the state recorded 317 manatee deaths, though former FWC commissioner Ron Bergeron said he thought the number was closer to 350 sea cows. 

Manatees gather in the warm waters of a canal off the Intracoastal Waterway near the Indian River Lagoon in Satellite Beach, Florida on Dec. 27, 2020. (Richard Tribou)

Manatee advocates said the die-off is another example of poor water quality.  

“It’s something we’ve never really seen before,” said Pat Rose, director of the Save the Manatee Club. “It looks like we have a substantial number of manatees that are starving.” 

“The decline didn’t happen overnight. The stunning water views, the fishing and recreational opportunities that drew people to the area have resulted in the water quality conditions we see today,” reads a statement from the district’s executive director Ann Shortelle.

“Too many nutrients, specifically nitrogen and phosphorus, are entering the lagoon from overfertilized lawns, faulty sewage treatment and leaching from septic tanks.”

Florida’s manatee population gathers in warm-water regions such as the lagoon during the winter months, so FWC states that as the temperatures climb, and manatees migrate naturally away from Brevard and around the state, that their situation may improve.

“This dispersal should lead manatees to better habitats,” FWC stated.

The state recorded 637 deaths across all 12 months of 2020, according to preliminary FWC data. That’s a little higher than the five-year average of 578. More than 100 of the 2020 deaths, though, including 40 in Brevard,, came in December as well, feeding into the continued mortality seen in January and February. FWC recorded only 405 manatee deaths for the entire year in 2015.

Despite the deaths, FWC estimates the manatee population in the state to be around 7,000, which is much higher than its low 30 years ago.

(Richard Tribou)

In fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s estimated population low of 1,267 manatees in 1991 has improved to the point that the manatee’s status was changed in 2017 from endangered to threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

FWC is continuing its manatee rescue program, though, including 45 in 2021 so far, including four in Brevard. In 2020, the state rescued 120 manatees including 26 in Brevard.

If you see an injured or dead manatee, you can call the FWC’s Wildlife Alert number at 1-888-404-3922 or #FWC on a cellphone.

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