“This catastrophic die-off foreshadows the manatee’s future unless we take immediate and effective action,” said Elizabeth Fleming, senior Florida representative at Defenders of Wildlife. “They’re starving to death. Ongoing water pollution has wiped out large areas of seagrass, a major food source. This situation cannot continue.” 

St. Petersburg, FL

Florida manatee mortality numbers now stand at 841 since the start of 2021, accounting for approximately 10% of the estimated total population of 8,810 animals and breaking the all-time record for annual manatee deaths. The previous record was set in 2013 with 830 casualties. With over five months left in the year, the death toll will likely continue to rise. 
 
“This catastrophic die-off foreshadows the manatee’s future unless we take immediate and effective action,” said Elizabeth Fleming, senior Florida representative at Defenders of Wildlife. “They’re starving to death. Ongoing water pollution has wiped out large areas of seagrass, a major food source. This situation cannot continue.” 
 
Scientists believe this Unusual Mortality Event (UME) is the result of several factors working in tandem with devastating results. Cold temperatures early in the winter season led to manatees gathering at warm water sources to prevent succumbing to cold stress—a sometimes fatal condition manatees experience in water below 68 degrees Fahrenheit. In many of these areas along the Atlantic coast, water pollution and algal blooms had resulted in the loss of large areas of seagrass—the manatees’ staple food—causing large numbers of manatees to starve to death when they went to feed after taking shelter from the cold. Although water temperatures have warmed again, many emaciated manatees have continued to die as they cannot recover from trauma from starvation.     
 
Manatees may experience regular UMEs in the coming years. Since the water quality is unlikely to improve in the short term given the systemic problems with how Florida manages its water resources, algal blooms will continue to kill off seagrass meadows, exacerbating the problem.  
 
“Without greater oversight in how we steward our lands and waters in Florida, we can expect to continue to see annual mortality events affecting manatees and many other species,” said Fleming. “We must reduce pollution in our waterways and invest in protecting and restoring vital habitat, such as the Great Florida Riverway. Quick action will be critical to prevent ongoing losses of manatees.” 
 
While the species has rebounded since its inclusion on the Endangered Species List in the 1970s, manatees remain vulnerable to various threats, including habitat destruction, watercraft strikes, rising sea levels and water pollution. Extreme weather events intensified by climate change can also have chilling effects on the water, causing the manatees to develop cold stress and die. 
 
If anyone sees a sick or injured manatee, such as one that has trouble swimming, they should call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s wildlife hotline at 1-888-404-3922 or #FWC on a cell phone. Please do not touch or feed manatees, which can change their behavior and put them in harm’s way.  The best way to help manatees is to report sick or injured manatees to the commission. 
 
 

Defenders of Wildlife is celebrating 75 years of protecting all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With a nationwide network of nearly 2.2 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit defenders.org/newsroom and follow us on Twitter @Defenders.

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