St. Petersburg, FL

Today, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced that 1,003 manatees have died since the start of 2021. The Unusual Mortality Event (UME) has claimed the lives of more than 10% of the estimated statewide population, including 20% of those on the Atlantic coast, shattering the previous statewide record of 830 deaths in 2013.

“Widespread pollution is destroying manatee habitat and starving them in the process,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife. “Without immediate action, this tragedy will continue to play out year after year, setting back decades of progress to recover this threatened species.”

Scientists are studying the causes of the UME, likely the result of several factors working in tandem with devastating results. Manatees are suffering due to compromised habitat and lack of food, phenomena fueled by overdevelopment, water pollution, and climate change-driven water temperature shifts. 

With more than 21.5 million residents and growing, Florida is the third most populous state in the country. In recent years, a combination of agricultural, residential, and industrial runoff—exacerbated by lax enforcement of water quality laws and weak oversight of land development—has fueled algal blooms that have killed tens of thousands of acres of seagrass, starving manatees until they are weakened or die. 

While the species has rebounded since its inclusion on the Endangered Species List in the 1970s, manatees remain extremely vulnerable to numerous threats, including habitat destruction, watercraft strikes, climate change and water pollution. Warming water temperatures and nutrient pollution favor the growth of harmful algae throughout much of the year. At the same time, extreme cold weather events intensified by climate change can also have chilling effects on the water, causing the manatees to develop cold stress and die.

Defenders is calling on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to prioritize safeguarding and securing manatee habitat to prevent further unprecedented loss of Florida manatees in the future. FWS must work with the state of Florida to reduce pollution flowing into manatee habitat and to restore essential feeding and sheltering habitats. To save manatees in the short-term, FWS must accelerate and expand rescue and rehabilitation efforts to help manatees get through this coming winter. 

Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With 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 and follow us on Twitter @Defenders.

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Jake Bleich
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