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Florida Manatee Deaths Hit Record High

This year it has become as clear as a crystal spring that Florida manatees are facing serious and unprecedented threats. In July -- only halfway through 2021 -- the number of manatee mortalities hit a new annual record of more than 800. As of August, this has increased to over 900. Florida manatees are a West Indian manatee subspecies native to the southeastern U.S. Manatees are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and also protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act.

With particularly cool temperatures early last winter, manatees sought warmer waters to escape the possibility of cold stress. In many of these areas along the Atlantic coast, algal blooms fueled by water pollution have caused the loss of large areas of seagrass -- the manatees' staple food. "We have never before seen manatees starving to death like this in high numbers," says Elizabeth Fleming, senior Florida representative at Defenders of Wildlife. "This catastrophic die-off foreshadows the manatee's future unless we take immediate and effective action."

Algal blooms -- fueled by decades of agricultural, urban and industrial runoff and compounded by sewage overflow and other pollution -- kill seagrass by preventing it from getting sunlight and the nutrients it needs to grow.

Looking beyond the current crisis, the greatest long-term threat to manatees remains the loss and degradation of natural habitat that provides the forage and warm water essential to their survival. Additional future mass mortality events could result if we fail to restore seagrasses and other food sources and natural alternatives to artificial warm water sources such as power plant outfalls. Sixty percent of Florida's manatees currently rely on the outfalls to stay warm in the winter. This is an unsustainable situation for the species because these artificial warm water sources can fail and will likely be taken offline in the coming decades. Many of the power plants where they're located don't have sufficient food sources for manatees nearby.

One viable option for providing additional warm water winter habitat with the forage sources manatees need is to restore the Ocklawaha River. The river is the heart of a 217-mile system of rivers and springs called the Great Florida Riverway. Breaching the Rodman/Kirkpatrick dam that impounds the Ocklawaha would restore manatee access to numerous warm water springs currently submerged beneath artificially high-water levels created by the dam. This habitat could support hundreds of manatees and provide unimpeded access to additional habitat in Silver River and Silver Springs that is also part of the Great Florida Riverway.

Defenders is ardently advocating alongside the Free the Ocklawaha River Coalition to restore the river to a free-flowing state with much-needed habitat for manatees.

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