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Manatee deaths in Florida expected to reach at least 1,000 this year

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Posted at 5:23 PM, Oct 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-25 17:24:25-04

Manatees are a Florida icon. But now, there are grave concerns about their fate this winter after an unprecedented number of deaths this year. 

The count is expected to hit 1,000. Already it's nearly double the five-year average as experts prepare for the worst. It's the most deaths for the mammal in Florida in decades.

"She's ahead," said Nicole Bartlett. 

The research assistant tracks manatees following their rescue and release. This August morning on a lake in the Ocala National Forest, she's looking for Greedy B. 

"To see how she's using the Ocklawaha River so we can determine how many manatees are using and what they're finding out here," she said. 

The good news- it seemed like Greedy was eating and even found friends. But the concern is what lies ahead.

"I'm really concerned about this next winter. I think a lot of the food sources for the animals haven't had a chance to grow back," said Bartlett. 

The deaths going back to last winter are considered an 'unusual mortality event.' A significant focus is on the state's east coast, in the Indian River Lagoon. 

"Our oceans and coastal ecosystems are facing a number of grand challenges to their continued vitality, and I think a huge red light warning sign is the death of all these manatees," said Dr. Michael Crosby, the president and CEO of Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium. 

A factor behind the deaths may be a loss in food, seagrass. Scientists explain that ties back to water quality. Algal blooms in the area have led to less water clarity and light, leading to significantly less seagrass, which manatees feed off. Video from the St. John's River Water Management District shows the contrast in 2010 versus this summer. 

"The seagrasses have not rebounded at this point. It's going to take a few years of good water quality before they'll bounce back," said Chuck Jacoby, the district's supervising environmental scientist in the estuary section. 

It's not an issue limited to Florida's east coast. 

"It's a global problem, and it's a continuing problem in the United States but not as bad as it used to be, and Florida has a much better history in the last 20 years of seagrass loss, but we still see losses," said Jim Fourqurean, a distinguished professor at Florida International University. 

He explained seagrass isn't just food for animals. It helps clean the water and can stop sediment from moving around. 

"That means they provide storm protection and protection against storm surge for the human-built environment," he said. "These are the most valuable systems on earth." 

Dennis Hanisack, a research professor at Florida Atlantic University, is studying seagrass restoration. They've planted seagrass in some areas after starting a seagrass nursery. 

"We found as long as we provide some protection to the new plants which were basically like cages or screen we got pretty good growth where there was no seagrass," Hanisack said. 

But the recovery will take longer. That means when manatees come back to warmer Florida waters in the winter, the problem remains. 

"So yes, we are preparing for the worst," said Martine DeWit, a veterinarian with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

FWC said they're reviewing all options to support them. DeWit said that includes conversations about feeding. 

"It's not just about manatees. What happens when you introduce, for example, lettuce in this ecosystem that's already facing issues with imbalance and nutrients?" 

They're also preparing for any rescues needed. 

"First of all, it's that space in the rehabilitation facilities which is always critical lots of talks on how to handle that. Our response for carcasses, if we get that again, how do we handle that? How do we get the bodies out? How do we continue our health investigations to document that it is still primary starvation or whether we are seeing other causes to their death now?" DeWit explained. 

A network of organizations is part of the preparation.

That includes ZooTampa, which offers critical care to manatees and calves.

"We're looking at our capacity, what our pools can hold, what our filtration can do to make sure we can help in every way we can. We know that we're going to have to take on more manatees this winter," said Tiffany Burns, the director of conservation, research, and behavior. 

ZooTampa is nursing more manatees back to health, including orphaned calves than they typically see. Burns said it's not clear what's behind the increase in calves, which require round-the-clock care and feedings, but they are preparing for the winter. 

"I mean, we would do anything that we needed to save these animals," said Burns. 

To create more space, Clearwater Marine Aquarium is transforming a facility to increase capacity to take care of manatees. 

"When manatees end up dying, it's not like the canary in the coal mine because the manatees are already dead because the seagrasses have died, the fish, the critters the shrimp everything that's dependent on that health system is no longer there, so it's gonna take years to recover," said Dr. James 'Buddy' Powell, the executive director the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. 

Conservation organizations are also ready to go to court. The Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice of their intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, alleging the agency failed to revise the manatees' critical habitat. 

"I think there was too much neglect that occurred over many years of time where there were warnings given to the agencies. We think, though, that this is a wake-up call. We believe they are prepared to do more, but we are going to have to stay right on top of this issue, and we hope to sue would be the last resort," said Patrick Rose, the executive director and aquatic biologist with the Save the Manatee Club. 

In 2017 manatees were reclassified from endangered to threatened. Now there's also a bipartisan effort underway to move the manatees back to endangered.

"The biggest thing is it brings more visibility, more resources, ideally more dollars. It did have that status. I was upset when they downgraded it about 5-6 years ago, so now I'm pushing back against what's happening, and I think a lot of it's because of that," said Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-FL), who is sponsoring a bill on it. 

"The legal process of legislating is much slower than the regulatory process, so we're continuing to encourage the DOI to do the right thing and do this by regulatory means that would be the more likely way to get this through in time for the winter, so it's a dual push," said Rep. Darren Soto (D-FL), who is also co-sponsoring the legislation. 

Scientists explained steps people can take to help, things like not using fertilizer on lawns during rainy seasons; or washing cars in the grass to limit runoff. 

Back out on the water, Bartlett still has hope. 

"I hope she has eaten enough and waits as long as she can before she heads to the east coast if that's what she's going to do. I hope she survives the winter with room to spare," said Bartlett.

Haley Bull at Newsy first reported this story.