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Florida’s manatees dying at alarming rates

FWC says more manatees died in first quarter of 2021, than in all of 2020

Along the Atlantic coast, manatees are dying at an alarming rate. More manatees have died within the first three months of 2021 than in all of 2020. The Jacksonville Zoo is making adjustments when releasing them.
Along the Atlantic coast, manatees are dying at an alarming rate. More manatees have died within the first three months of 2021 than in all of 2020. The Jacksonville Zoo is making adjustments when releasing them.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Marine biologists are concerned after more manatees died in Florida within the first three months of 2021 than in all of 2020

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported 649 manatee deaths from Jan. 1, 2021, to April 9, 2021, compared to all of 2020. The FWC says the manatee deaths and manatee mortalities are taking place along the central and south Atlantic coast of Florida.

The FWC is working with the federal government to investigate why so many manatees are dying. The state agency has declared this an “Unusual Mortality Event.” This means it’s unexpected and involves a significant die-off of a marine mammal population and requires an immediate response.

“There have been an extremely high number of deaths this winter and certainly the number one concern is lack of food out there,” said Craig Miller, curator of mammals at the Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens.

Miller is talking about the lack of seagrass. According to the FWC, “while the investigation is ongoing, initial assessments indicate the high number of emaciated manatees is likely due to a decline in food availability.”

Miller oversees the manatee critical care center, which is one of four centers in the state. In February, the zoo released five rehabilitated manatees.

News4Jax asked Miller if there is hesitation to get these animals back out there: “two of those five were from East Coast and because of everything going on, we actually released them at blue spring,” he said. “It just didn’t seem like the best idea to put them back in that environment.”

With colder winter temperatures than usual, all it takes is for the water to drop below 68 degrees for the mammals to become cold-stressed. Biologists say as temps are warming up, manatees will travel to other areas of the state, but Miller says this unusual mortality event is expected to continue for a while longer.

Currently, there are three manatees at the center. One is a calf who came to the Zoo on March 5th.

“She’s an orphan and we have no idea what happened to her, but likely there’s a good chance mom starved to death,” said Miller.

Two of three manatees at the zoo are considered part of the Unusual Mortality Event.

The FWC says 42% of the manatee deaths so far this year took place in an area of concern -- the Indian River in Brevard County. Biologists say this area has suffered a significant loss of seagrass beds for the past decade.

Through all of this, Miller said there are boat strikes still happening.

As a reminder:

  • Follow the posted speed zones
  • Avoid seagrass beds
  • Do not feed or give water to the manatees. It’s illegal
  • Wear polarized glasses

If you see a sick, injured, or dead manatee, call the FWC at 1-888-404-3922.


About the Author:

Multi-media journalist with a special interest in Georgia issues.