TAMPA, Fla. — They're loved by millions in the state of Florida, but their future is at risk. Manatees are the gentle giants of the water and are synonymous with Florida. But, sadly, they continue to die off year after year.
November marks Manatee Awareness month, and advocates for the mammal hope more eyes on the issue will reduce deaths.
Jaime Vaccaro is one of those advocates and is the supervisor of Florida and Manatee at Zoo Tampa. She's worked at the zoo for 15 years and watched as the rehabilitation need has grown over time. In her first years at the zoo, it was common to have about two manatees at the rehabilitation center and no more.
"When I started, we went through several months without having a manatee come in, and now it is very, very rare that we are under double digits," Vaccaro said.
The need for manatee care may have been at its worst last year. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, 982 manatees died in 2021. Out of that total, only 147 deaths were from natural death.
"We definitely had a really rough year last year with manatees and everything going on in the Indian River Lagoon and on our east coast," Vaccaro said.
Vaccaro is referencing the lack of seagrass at the Indian River Lagoon. Seagrass is the manatees feeding ground. Without it, they are starving to death.
J.P. Brooker is the director of the Florida Conservation and Conservancy. As a sixth-generation Floridian who grew up along the Indian River Lagoon, he knows all too well the damage and destruction the manatees face.
"In the last two years, we have seen the loss of 25% of our overall manatee population. That's over 1,800 manatees in actually less than two years have died," Brooker said.
Brooker said humans are part of the problem and create nutrient-poor and dangerous water systems. Basically, he said humans are aiding in contaminating the waterways, which is killing off the seagrass and, essentially, killing the manatees.
"Really, this water quality problem, it is in our control. We can reduce nutrients from going into our waterways, and that will have a positive impact on manatees in the long run. It's on us," Brooker said.
What's not in our control is mother nature. Hurricanes like Ian have a hand in putting stress on the population and in some cases, the reason behind manatee deaths.
FWC conducted three manatee rescues after Hurricane Ian due to entrapment because of high flood waters that displaced them.
While the numbers are bleak, all is not lost. At the end of the day, Vaccaro believes people truly want to help, and awareness is making a difference.
"I know we have so many people in the community who want to help manatees," Vacarro said.