Florida manatees dying in record numbers in a food shortage

NS. Petersburg, Florida. (AP)

Paul Fafeta, a Florida fishing guide and environmental activist, says the highlight of charter customers is finding manatees looking for seagrass in the shallows. It’s not that thrilling when they come across a hungry and dead manatee’s fading corpse.

“It’s not good to have clients on the boat and suddenly dead manatees,” said Fafeta, chairman of the Indian River County Cleanwater Union, during a recent excursion in the Indian River Lagoon. A hangout for marine mammals along the east coast of Florida. “They want to see them. They don’t want to see them dead.”

Florida has experienced an unprecedented death in Manatees this year, with 959 deaths recorded as of October 1. State estimates are between 7,500 and 10,200 along both Florida coasts.

According to state statistics, this year’s manatee deaths are double the 593 recorded in 2020, well above Florida’s average of 146 deaths over the last five years.

Gil McRae, director of the state’s Institute for Fish and Wildlife, said: “I don’t know how long it will be (the number of manatee deaths is high).”

reason? Seagrass, on which so-called seagrass depends, is also dying due to poor water quality due to fertilizer spills, drainage and deliberate diversion of contaminated water from Lake Okeechobee to coastal estuaries.

These artificial pollutants can cause an outbreak of algae that are too thick to get the sunlight needed for seagrass to survive, endangering the manatees’ staple food supply. State estimates indicate that approximately 58% of seagrass has been lost in the Indian River Lagoon since 2009.

“Florida is at the crossroads of water quality and climate, and manatees are canaries in coal mines,” said JP Bruker, director of Florida’s Marine Conservation and Environment Group, in an opinion piece published by The Invading Sea. , A collaboration of 26 Florida press focused on the effects of climate change.

“They are becoming extinct in record numbers as we humans have made Florida waters harder for them to live in,” Bruker said. “It’s not just manatees that are at stake, but ecosystem issues across the coast.”

State and federal environmental authorities have launched a $ 8 million state-funded manatees habitat restoration program approved by the Florida legislature this year. They say that more creatures may be hungry before the restoration work is completed, as manatees tend to gather in the warm waters during the cooler winter months.

“Seaweed recovery doesn’t happen overnight. You can’t actually start planting seaweed until the water quality improves,” said Michael Sole, vice chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. I am. “Winter is coming.”

The Commission is asking state legislators to approve an additional $ 7 million at the next legislative session for seagrass restoration, manatees rehabilitation centers, and other projects. At a committee hearing last week, McRae said researchers were also studying whether humans could feed without harming manatees.

“People who pay attention to feeding wildlife know almost universally that it is more harmful than good,” McRae told lawmakers. However, if the number of manatees continues to plummet, “some supplementary feeding may be needed,” he said.

Manatees have struggled to endure humans for decades. Boat strikes kill dozens of slow-moving animals, despite the no-track areas of frequent animal visits, and many more are injured for life from such encounters. There is also the threat of red tides and unusually cold weather.

They are gentle round-tailed giants, weighing 1,200 pounds (550 kilograms) and about 65 years long. Manati is the official marine mammal in Florida and is closely associated with elephants.

Perhaps the most famous and oldest manatee in captivity, Snooty, drowned at the age of 69 after a hatch failure in the Bradenton Museum’s aquarium in 2017.

Manatees were designated as an endangered species by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1966. This designation was downgraded to a less stringent endangered species in 2016. Redesignation of manatees as endangered is being promoted to increase the likelihood of long-term recovery.

Jacqueline Lopez, Florida Director and Senior Attorney for the Center for Biodiversity, a non-profit organization based in St. Petersburg, said: The center and other groups plan to sue the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to strengthen manatee habitat protection.

So far, the threatened designation remains. A 2017 federal analysis found that the chances of manatees extinction in Florida being less than half a percent within the next 100 years.

But for environmental groups, the manatee struggle is a signal that humans are destroying the coastal estuaries that they and many other creatures need to survive.

The Department of State’s Environmental Protection Agency has launched a program aimed at significantly reducing the burden of harmful emissions on the Indian River Lagoon by 2035.

The focus is on reducing the introduction of nitrogen and phosphorus, which cause outbreaks of seagrass-killing algae. According to the State Environment Agency, previous projects have reduced the release of these nutrients by 37%, the ultimate goal.

Meanwhile, rescue and rehabilitation efforts for hungry manatees continue from Orlando’s Seaworld theme parks to Tampa Zoo and elsewhere.

In September, Clearwater Marine Aquarium announced plans for a fifth-class $ 10 million manatees rescue and rehabilitation facility in Florida.

A coalition of 16 environmental and business groups called for the death of Manatees to be declared an emergency by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis this summer. This allows you to focus your resources and attention on the problem. DeSantis hasn’t done that, claiming at a press conference that it “surprise many” and probably cause financial harm.

“We have a lot of money at our disposal,” said the governor.

Returning to the water, activist Fafeta in a fishing guide said it wasn’t just manatees — the reduction of seagrass also affects other species such as gazami crabs and spotted sea trout.

“As you know, the list keeps growing,” Fafeta said. “Now our big concern is manatees. We’re not going to catch so many fish this year. It’s affecting us. The real impact next year.”

Florida manatees dying in record numbers in a food shortage

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