Manatees (File Photo) Photograph:( Others )
Because of fertiliser runoff, wastewater discharges and deliberately diverted water from Lake Okeechobee to coastal estuaries, the seagrass on which so-called sea cows rely is dying
This year, Florida has been dealing with a massive die-off of manatees, with 959 documented deaths as of Oct. 1. This has already been the deadliest year on record, and according to state estimates, further colder weather may cause another wave of deaths among the estimated 7,500 to 10,200 manatees along both Florida coasts.
Manatee deaths this year are expected to double the 593 recorded in 2020, and exceed the state's latest five-year average of 146 deaths, with no end to the die-off in sight.
"There is a huge sense of urgency," said Gil McRae, director of the state Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. "We're uncertain how long it's (high manatee deaths) going to be."
Who is to blame? Because of fertiliser runoff, wastewater discharges and deliberately diverted water from Lake Okeechobee to coastal estuaries, the seagrass on which so-called sea cows rely is dying.
Additionally, these pollutants can lead to algae blooms so dense that seagrass cannot get enough sunlight to survive. Since 2009, 58 per cent of the seagrass in the Indian River Lagoon has been lost.
Florida is at a crossroads with regards to water quality and climate, says JP Brooker, Florida director for the Ocean Conservancy environmental group.
Because of human activity, Florida waters have become inhospitable to them, he added. “It's not just our manatees at risk, it's a coast-wide ecological problem.”
Florida legislators have approved $8 million in state funding for a manatee habitat restoration programme. However, with cooler winter months ahead, more manatees are likely to starve before the restoration work is complete if they congregate in warmer waters.
“Seagrass restoration doesn't happen overnight. We can't really start planting seagrass until we have water quality improvements,” said Michael Sole, vice chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“The winter is coming.”
During the upcoming legislative session, the commission is asking for an additional $7 million for projects such as seagrass restoration and manatee rehabilitation centres. Researchers are also studying whether humans can feed manatees without harming them, McRae said at a hearing last week.
“Those of you that have paid attention to feeding wildlife know that almost universally, it does more harm than good,” McRae told lawmakers.
But if the manatees' numbers keep plummeting, “there's a possibility some level of supplemental feeding might be in order,” he said.
Manatees have struggled to withstand humans for decades. Boat strikes kill dozens of the slow-moving animals despite no-wake zones in areas the animals frequent, and many more bear lifelong scars from such encounters. There are also threats from red tide outbreaks and unusually cold weather.
Watch | Amid food scarcity, Florida manatees dying in record numbers
Fish and Wildlife Service listed manatees as endangered in 1966, a designation that was downgraded to threatened in 2016. In an attempt to increase the chances of long-term recovery for manatees, a new campaign is underway to list the animals as endangered once again.