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Florida manatees died in record rates in 2021. But what's killing them?

Posted at 10:29 PM, Jan 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-14 05:56:01-05

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Last year was a bad year for Florida manatees who saw a record number of deaths along the east and west coast.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported startling numbers for manatee deaths in 2021, with over one thousand dead - and the reason might shock you.

“The most significant factor in increased mortality in 2021 was a source we’ve never really had before - and that is starvation,” explains Patrick Rose, Executive Director for the "Save the Manatee Club".

That starvation all came down to one main factor: "We’ve had such severe loss of seagrasses and that’s directly related to too much nitrogen pollution,” says Rose.

The pollution is rising for a number of reasons.

“Whether it’s from failing septic systems to the ground water, improperly treated sewage and for fertilizers and runoffs,” explains Rose.

Though the majority of deaths occurred on the East Coast, the F-W-C has started implementing several solutions.

“At this point in time, in order to stave off a repeat of this, they’re looking at some supplemental feeding for the first time also on the east coast of Florida.”

But due to warmer forecasts throughout the holiday season, the effectiveness of those solutions have been mixed.

“They really haven’t had any significant results from that yet because we’ve had an unusually warm winter so far,” says Rose.

In Southwest Florida, a leading cause of death for manatees is red tide.

“We’ve had more than three hundred manatees die in a year from red tide. So if you start adding all these things up together, the manatees are having a pretty tough time.”

And of course, boaters play a significant role, too.

“We had over one hundred manatees die from watercraft injuries this year, and likely more than that - that’s what we know about,” says Rose.

“In Fort Myers, they’ll be up the orange river, at the type power plant, but in weather like this which is unusually warm, they’re more spread out.”

Ultimately, Rose says the solution starts with us.

“We have it within our control as humans to stop the excess nitrogen from our wastewater. So whether that’s getting off of septic tanks, getting to advanced wastewater treatment - put the water back as clean as you took it out!”

So, if you're out boating this weekend and happen to find a sick or injured manatee, you're encouraged to report it to the F-W-C by calling 1-888-404-3922.