Save The Manatee Club, a non-profit dedicated to the conservation of manatees, is reporting 330 manatee mortalities have been recorded in Florida so far this year. According to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission (FWC), the year 2021 was the worst record of manatee mortalities since record keeping began 50 years ago. For 2022, the numbers are on track for another disappointing year of manatee losses. Many of these deaths were reported in and around the Indian River Lagoon (IRL) – a critical manatee habitat, where nutrient pollution, resulting in algae blooms, has led to catastrophic loss of seagrass.
Since 2013, the month of March is annually known in Florida as Seagrass Awareness month. Manatees are herbivores and eat all seven species of seagrass in Florida. Seagrass is considered a vital part of coastal ecosystems. Seagrasses are a critical food source and provide important nursery habitats.The complex root systems help reduce risk of sand erosion. Seagrass meadows help filter the water of pollutants and sediments. Just as land plants pull carbon dioxide from the air to perform photosynthesis, seagrasses pull carbon dioxide from the ocean.
Florida’s Response to the Growing Deaths of Local Manatees
How is Florida responding to the crisis? According to a recent news release, wildlife officials have been trucking in 110,000 pounds of Florida-grown lettuce since beginning to feed the starving manatees on January 20, 2022 in hopes to lessen the toll of the ongoing historic die-off. In a weekly video update, Sarah Berret, Assistant Section Leader, Imperiled Species Management from FWC, reported the produce has cost over $18,000 so far.
According to a report generated by the FWC for Volusia County, a total of 41 manatee mortalities were reported for the year 2020. Preliminary reports for 2021 show a total of 76 manatee mortalities, the highest recorded in the past five years. So far this year, 10 manatee mortalities have been recorded in Volusia County.
Florida’s Manatee Feeding Program
Wildlife agencies are only feeding manatees at a single command center on the Indian River Lagoon. A spokesperson for the joint response team said anywhere from 50 to 800 manatees have shown up there, depending on weather. Officials are not ready to declare the experimental feeding trial a victory or to expand it yet. Nothing like this has been attempted before.
Efforts at the site, located at Florida Power & Light plant in Brevard county, are winding down. The manatees are dispersing from their winter sites to warmer waters around the state. A total of 193,200 pounds of lettuce has been fed to manatees on Florida’s east coast. As of March 19, 2022, Florida Fish & Wildlife have reported 441 manatees have died in Florida so far this year.
Repairing damage to the Indian River Lagoon will take years. Seagrass will not regrow overnight, and the health of the environment will depend on people lowering pollution.
Globally, all three species of manatees are considered vulnerable (high risk of extinction in the wild) by The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species (IUCN) – the world’s most comprehensive information source on the global conservation of animal, fungi and plant species.
Anyone who sees a manatee in distress – sick, injured, entangled, orphaned, dying or dead – should report it immediately to the Florida’s Wildlife Alert Hotline at 1-888-404-3922. For more information about this unusual mortality event, visit MyFWC.com or follow along on social media @MyFWC.