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Oct. 26, 2021, 1:57 p.m. EDT

Florida manatees starve to death as polluted water kills seagrass

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By Associated Press

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Florida fishing guide and environmental activist Paul Fafeita says a highlight for his charter customers is spotting the manatees that forage for seagrass in shallow waters. It’s not so thrilling when they come across the emaciated carcass of a manatee that starved to death.

“It’s not good when you’ve got clients on the boat and all of a sudden there’s a dead manatee,” Fafeita, president of the Clean Water Coalition of Indian River County, said during a recent excursion in the Indian River Lagoon, a favorite hangout for the marine mammals along Florida’s east coast. “They’re wanting to see them. They don’t want to see them dead.”

Florida is experiencing an unprecedented die-off of manatees this year, with 959 documented deaths as of Oct. 1. That’s already more than any full year on record, and colder weather soon to come could bring another wave of deaths in a population that numbers between 7,500 and 10,200 along both Florida coasts, according to state estimates.

Manatee deaths this year will likely double the 593 recorded in 2020, and will far outnumber the latest five-year average of 146 deaths in Florida,  according to state figures, 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.”

The reason? Seagrass on which the so-called sea cows depend also is dying as water quality declines due to fertilizer runoff, wastewater discharges and polluted water that is increasingly diverted on purpose from Lake Okeechobee to coastal estuaries.

These manmade pollutants can cause algae blooms so thick that seagrass can’t get the sunlight it needs to survive, jeopardizing the manatees’ main food supply. Since 2009 about 58% of the seagrass has been lost in the Indian River Lagoon, state estimates show.

“The cold hard fact is: Florida is at a water quality and climate crossroads, and manatees are our canary in the coal mine,” said J.P. Brooker, Florida director for the Ocean Conservancy environmental group, in an opinion piece published by  The Invading Sea , a collaboration of 26 Florida news outlets focused on climate change impact.

“They are dying off in record numbers because we humans have made Florida waters inhospitable to them,” Brooker said. “It’s not just our manatees at risk, it’s a coast-wide ecological problem.”

State and federal environmental officials are beginning a manatee habitat restoration program, armed with $8 million in state money approved this year by Florida legislators. They say with cooler winter months on the way, the tendency of manatees to congregate in warmer waters could mean many more of the creatures will starve before the restoration work is completed.

“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.”

The commission is asking state lawmakers to approve another $7 million in the upcoming legislative session for seagrass restoration, manatee rehabilitation centers and other projects. At a committee hearing last week, McRae said researchers also are studying whether humans can feed manatees without harming them.

“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.

They are gentle round-tailed giants, weighing as much as 1,200 pounds (550 kilograms) and living as long as 65 years or so. Manatees are Florida’s official state marine mammal and are closely related to elephants.

Perhaps the best-known and oldest manatee in captivity, a male named Snooty, died at age 69, drowning after a hatch malfunctioned in his aquarium at a Bradenton museum in 2017.

Manatees were listed as endangered beginning in 1966 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a designation downgraded to the less-stringent threatened category in 2016. A new push is on to list manatees as endangered once again to increase their long-term recovery chances.

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