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A Manatee Emergency, A Look Into Why Florida's Sea Cows Are Dying Off So Quickly

Federal officials have declared an unusual mortality event for the state’s manatees and an investigation is underway as to why they’re dying off so quickly.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Federal officials have declared an unusual mortality event for the state’s manatees and an investigation is underway as to why they’re dying off so quickly.

Federal officials have declared an unusual mortality event for the state's manatees. An investigation is underway as to why they're dying off so quickly. More than 700 manatees have died in Florida so far this year. That's more than double the average.

"The manatees that they are seeing on the east coast are all coming in with the same situation. Extremely underweight, extremely thin, some to the point that it can't be reversed," Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute's Jenn Galbraith says.

The Institute partners with multiple agencies to look after manatees. Galbraith says she's seen reports and photographs of manatees coming in looking like they've wasted away.

"They're not a naïve animal that maybe didn't know where to find food or warm water. These are animals that have been making their regular migratory routes year after year," Galbraith says.

Preliminary information from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) shows a reduced food supply is contributing to the high death count. Manatees eat seagrass. One of their homes is the Indian River Lagoon, where 46,000 acres of seagrass have been lost since 2009. The FWC says environmental conditions in the lagoon remain a concern.

"Algal blooms block out the light that the seagrasses need," St. Johns River Water Management District's Chuck Jacoby says. His district oversees the lagoon.

"The primary driver of the algal bloom, the single-celled algae, phytoplankton, is nutrient inputs. And so, there is a process in place to reduce the loads of nutrients entering the lagoon," Jacoby says.

Jacoby says excess nutrients come from septic tanks leaching into the lagoon. They also come from fertilizer washing into the lagoon via stormwater, among other things. When water quality improves, the algal blooms will lessen, and more light will shine on the seagrass, allowing it to survive. Jacoby says the plan is to clear up the lagoon over the next seven years. But Patrick Rose with the non-profit Save the Manatee Club says manatees don't have that long.

"If you take years and years to fix what's broken, the population doesn't really have years and years. Those individual manatees don't have years and years to wait for the seagrass to regrow even if we're successful," Rose says.

Rose says if next winter is extra cold, more manatees could end up dying.

"The cold, together with the malnutrition, can add up together and cause an animal to die when it might not have died from either source alone," Rose says.

Galbraith says manatees need to find warm water in the winter, but on the east coast, she says a lot of warm water places don't have enough seagrass.

"At that point, a manatee has to choose whether it wants to go far to find food and risk cold exposure or stay in the warmer water and risk starvation. So that's a pretty dramatic choice that they're going to have to make," Galbraith says.

Rep. Tyler Sirois (R-Merritt Island) is considering legislation next session aimed at helping restore seagrass. His district is in Brevard County, where nearly 300 manatees have died this year.

"My hope would be that in the future, developers that are involved in projects along our coastline would be able to invest in seagrass preservation and repairs the same way they would be able to invest in wetland mitigation," Sirois says.

Sometimes developers have projects that impact surface waters. To get a permit, Sirois says they have to mitigate those impacts.

"The concept for seagrass mitigation is not new. This legislation, I believe, was sponsored by in 2006, and it was actually vetoed by then-Governor Charlie Christ. And in the governor's veto message, he actually explained that he didn't believe seagrasses served the public interest. We know a lot more about this issue today," Sirois says.

Sirois's proposed legislation is similar to a bill he filed unsuccessfully last session. He says he thinks his bill has a chance next session, especially now that the legislature has appropriated $8 million to help restore manatee habitats.

Copyright 2021 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Robbie Gaffney is a recent graduate from Florida State University with degrees in Digital Media Production and Creative Writing. Before working at WFSU, they recorded FSU’s basketball and baseball games for Seminole Productions as well as interned for the PBS Station in Largo, Florida. Robbie loves playing video games such as Shadow of the Colossus, Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. Their other hobbies include sleeping and watching anime.
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