Florida’s manatees are dying in record numbers, officials say

More manatees have died already this year than in any other year in Florida’s recorded history, primarily from starvation due to the loss of seagrass beds, state officials said.

The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission reported that 841 manatee deaths were recorded between January 1 and July 2, breaking the previous record of 830 that died in 2013 because of an outbreak of toxic red tide.

The TCPalm news site reports that more than half the deaths have occurred in the Indian River Lagoon and its surrounding areas in Volusia, Brevard, Indian River, St. Lucie and Martin counties. The overwhelming majority of deaths have been in Brevard, where 312 manatees have perished.

Manatees swimming in Florida
Manatees swim in Blue Spring State Park in Volusia County, Florida, in a 2015 file photo. Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Some biologists believe water pollution is killing the seagrass beds in the area.

“Unprecedented manatee mortality due to starvation was documented on the Atlantic coast this past winter and spring,” Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute wrote as it announced the record Friday. “Most deaths occurred during the colder months when manatees migrated to and through the Indian River Lagoon, where the majority of seagrass has died off.”

Boat strikes are also a major cause of manatee deaths, killing at least 63 this year.

The manatee was once classified as endangered by the federal government, but it was reclassified as threatened in 2017. Environmentalists are asking that the animal again be considered endangered.

They’re getting support from some local and state officials. CBS Tampa Bay station WTSP reports Republican Congressman Vern Buchanan wrote a letter last month to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service urging it to re-designate these “beloved, iconic mammals” as endangered rather than threatened given the dramatic increase in manatee deaths.

“Time is of the essence,” Buchanan wrote.

The federal government says approximately 6,300 manatees live in Florida waters, up from about 1,300 in the early 1990s.