Florida's Manatees Are Dying at Record Rates This Year

Officials declared an unusual mortality event for the state's slow-moving critters.
Derya Ozdemir

There is a manatee emergency brewing on the coasts of Florida which has prompted federal officials to declare an unusual event for the state's slow-moving critters. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission said last week that, as of May 21, more than 700 manatees have died in Florida, which is more than double the average.

An investigation into why they're dying off so quickly is underway, and environmentalists fear the fatalities might jeopardize the species' long-term survival.

There's evidence that a variety of factors are behind the manatee deaths. Seagrass, the sea cows' preferred meal, is rapidly disappearing, owing in part to the intense algae blooms that Florida has been dealing with in recent years. Algae blooms are increasing due to nutrient-rich runoff from agriculture and other businesses, as well as warming waters due to climate change. The blooms cover the water's surface, shading out the seagrasses that rely on sunlight to thrive, thus killing the grasses.

According to the local river management district, 58 percent of the seagrass in the lagoon has died off since 2009. For a species that weighs 1,200 pounds (544 kg) on average and needs to eat between 60 and 120 pounds (27 and 54 kg) per day, the seagrass being scarce spells immense danger.

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There is also the problem of pesticides. A March study found traces of an active ingredient in some of the world's most-used pesticides, glyphosate, in more than 55 percent of manatees tested, with many of them coming from the polluted Indian River Lagoon. 

"Our beloved chubby sea cows are dodging boat strikes, reeling from red tide, and starving in the Indian River Lagoon because of water pollution," Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director for the CBD, told CNN. "It’s heartbreaking to add chronic glyphosate exposure to the list of factors threatening manatee survival."

By the end of the year, experts fear that 1,000 manatees could end up dead. There are only an estimated 7,500 manatees left in the wild, and if the animals continue to die at this pace, this would not only spell danger for the manatees, but for Florida's ecosystem as a whole.

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