This article was updated on July 13, 2021.
Florida manatees are dying from starvation in record numbers. As of July 2, 841 manatees have died this year alone—up from 637 total deaths in 2020 and 607 in 2019. Seven of those deaths have occurred in Sarasota County and 10 in Manatee.
Martine de Wit, from the Marine Mammal Pathobiology Lab at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, says that the biggest issue manatees face is starvation, citing big algae blooms, which populate the water and reduce water clarity, as the culprit. When the water gets murky, the sun can’t stream in, so vegetation—like sea grass, a manatee’s favorite meal—cannot grow.
“There’s almost no vegetation left for the manatees. This winter, it was almost like a desert,” she says.
The FWC also saw a lot of injured manatees due to hunger this winter, says de Wit. She says that most of the manatees in FWC's rescue program recovered and were released, but the process took months since the animals' bodies were so damaged from prolonged starvation.
Unfortunately, there's not much that can be done about the manatees' food shortage.
“There needs to be a restoration of the ecosystem, but that takes many partners pulling together to work on those restoration efforts," DeWit says. "Some have tried over the years, but it's really hard to make sea grass grow back when the water quality isn't there.”
The manatees' death rate is currently slowing now that winter is over. As the weather and water get warmer, they can swim around more and look for more food. But with the warmer weather comes new worries.
“Red tide is consistently a problem for manatees,” says de Wit. “It normally takes a while to know that there's a bloom, but a few weeks later, you can expect manatee problems.” She explains that toxins from red tide get stuck on sea grass, causing problems for manatees, which eat the vegetation.
“They are mammals, they need to breathe and inhale air, but the red tide toxins paralyze them," DeWit says.
Another challenge facing the gentle sea cow: watercraft. De Wit urges people to be vigilant when out on their boats and to wear polarized sunglasses, which help boaters see manatees better.
“The most important thing is lower speeds in areas that have a lot of manatees,” she says. “Manatees can be everywhere. Always be aware of that. Have someone on the boat survey the water for any manatees present in the area. You can recognize them by their little noses coming up for air, or look for their bubbles in the water.”
If you encounter an injured or dead manatee, call the FWC's 24/7 manatee crisis hotline: (888) 404-3922.