For Florida’s manatees, 2021 has already marked a grim milestone. More manatees have died this year than ever before on record. Between January and July, over 840 manatee deaths were reported. That is more than twice the number of deaths recorded over the same period in 2020 and at this rate, will far surpass the previous record of 830 manatee deaths in all of 2013. The situation is so severe that manatees are dying at five times normal levels.
The record deaths indicate an entire ecosystem breakdown. Researchers familiar with the crisis primarily blame the population collapse on pollution. Water pollution has led to a massive die-off of seagrass, the manatee’s main food source. Murky waters cut off sunlight to seagrasses, killing them. Polluted water is also at a higher risk for toxic algae blooms. Those blooms further block the sunlight from reaching the seagrasses. In Indian River Lagoon, where many Florida manatees stay during winter, 60% of the seagrass population has been destroyed. The impact of that has been catastrophic for the manatees that each need about 100 pounds of seagrass a day to survive. Most of this year’s deaths have been traced to starvation.
Sadly, recovery for the manatees will not come easy. Historically, events that have caused a spike in deaths have had a limited influence. Manatee populations are relatively quick to rebound after a cold spell, for example, but this situation isn’t as straightforward. Assuming that water quality can even improve enough to restore seagrass populations, it will take significant time to grow. Meanwhile though starving manatees will overgraze existing patches, further harming the regrowing process. The cycle is difficult to break. It also doesn’t help that manatees often struggle to overcome the effects of even early-stage starvation. Their symptoms linger long after finding food again and some never recover.
If things don’t change, experts fear that the manatee population will dwindle to near-extinction levels. Rescue groups are pushing to return manatees to the endangered species list. Manatees had been removed from the list in 2017 following a sustained increase in their population numbers. Experts believe though that this unprecedented crisis calls for them to be reinstated on the list. In doing so, manatees could be protected through additional funding and regulations. Perhaps that will spur the necessary action to improve water quality. Like with many environmental issues, we really only have ourselves to blame for these senseless deaths. Now we have a responsibility to fix it.