Florida’s Iconic Manatees Are in Trouble

The situation could get deadlier for the gentle marine mammals in the winter.


Save the Manatee Club

According to the most recent figures from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), 761 manatees have died so far this year.

“This is more than double the amount of the total recorded deaths last year,” Ally Greco, Director of Communications and Outreach at conservation nonprofit Save the Manatee Club, explains to Treehugger. 

And that’s not all. The manatee death toll as of May 28 is also more than double the average number of deaths for the past five years—which stands at 295. Of those five years, the year that saw the highest number of manatee deaths before 2021 was 2018, and that year the deaths numbered 368, still under half of the current numbers. 

Unusual Mortality Event

The situation is bad enough that the FWC has declared an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) for the manatees along Florida’s Atlantic Coast. 

“A UME declaration means that the event is unexpected and involves a significant die-off of a marine mammal population, and requires immediate response,” FWC explained. 

In this case, FWC is responding by keeping track of manatee mortalities and also by rescuing any manatees in distress as it investigates the root causes of the die off. 

While this investigation is ongoing, Both FWC and Save the Manatee Club agree that the driving factor is a lack of food, particularly in an area called the Indian River Lagoon. 

“As the direct result of human derelictions over many decades, the Indian River Lagoon (IRL) on the East Coast of Florida has suffered a series of harmful algal blooms, leading to massive losses in seagrass coverage and, in turn, the recent deaths of a heart-rending number of manatees,” Greco explains.

Seagrass is the manatees’ preferred food source in these ecosystems, as FWC explained. But it requires light to grow, something that the algae block by reducing water clarity. Because of algal blooms, seagrass beds in the IRL have been declining significantly since 2011. 

The situation gets even deadlier for manatees in the winter, Greco notes. The gentle marine mammals require warm water and tend to stay in areas where it is abundant, such as locations near power plants. This puts the manatees in danger when there is not enough food in the warmer temperatures they favor.

“Traveling further for forage would mean deadly exposure to cold water, so the manatees ultimately choose to forgo feeding over dying from the cold,” Greco explains. 

Ecosystem and Status Restoration

Manatee in florida
Romona Robbins Photography / Getty Images

Luckily, understanding the problem makes it easier to brainstorm a long-term solution. And, in this case, that solution means ensuring manatees have a safe place to live.

“Habitat loss is the biggest long-term threat to manatees survival,” Greco says. “Without access to warm-water and abundant food resources such as seagrass beds, manatees cannot survive in their aquatic habitat. For manatees to survive in the long term, their habitat will need to be protected. This includes addressing the nutrient pollution causing algal blooms that kill seagrasses, as well as protecting critical warm-water habitat like springs.”

To restore the manatees’ habitat and food source, FWC is working with other government agencies, universities, and conservation groups to improve the IRL’s estuary ecosystems. This means restoring beneficial species and communities like mangroves, oysters, marshes, and clams.

However, the resources available to help ensure the survival of manatees and their habitat have actually decreased in recent years, Greco points out. In 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), downgraded the marine mammals’ Endangered Species list status from endangered to threatened. 

“The federally managed Manatee Recovery Program was once the pride of the FWS,” Save the Manatee Club executive director Patrick Rose wrote in a recent editorial. “Now it is underfunded and neglected, leaving manatees and manatee habitat to suffer the effects of habitat overdevelopment. While the foundation laid through many years of intense proactive planning is still sound, and the remaining staff are working exceedingly hard to ensure that sick and injured manatees are being rescued, they need much more immediate support.”

Save the Manatee Club is therefore calling on the federal government to restore the manatees’ status as endangered, as well as to provide more resources and funding for the people already working to save manatees on the ground. 

What You Can Do

In the meantime, there are many things that individual manatee lovers can do to protect the gentle giants, as Save the Manatee Club pointed out. Which actions you can take will depend on whether or not you live nearby to manatees. 

If you live around manatees, you can:

  1. Report dead or distressed manatees to 1-888-404-FWCC (3922), VHF Channel 16 or using the FWC Reporter App.
  2. Don’t feed manatees. Even though they are suffering from lack of food, if manatees start to associate boats and humans with nourishment, it could put them in harm’s way. 
  3. Help prevent algal blooms by reducing nutrient pollution. If you live near a waterway, don’t fertilize your lawn or only do so once a year using slow-release nitrogen fertilizers between September 30 and June 1.

No matter where you live, you can:

  1. Write to elected officials like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, President Joe Biden and U.S. Congress and urge them to take action to protect manatees. 
  2. Contact the FWC urging them to investigate the situation in the IRL and take steps to prevent it from repeating.
  3. Donate to the Emergency Rescue Fund to help currently sick or injured manatees. 

“Manatees are an essential species within our aquatic ecosystems,” Rose summarized. “Saving manatees and the seagrasses upon which so many species depend must be given higher priority if we are to reverse these devastating losses.”

View Article Sources
  1. "2021 Preliminary Manatee Mortality Table with 5-Year Summary." Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 2021.

  2. "Manatee Mortality Event Along The East Coast: 2020-2021." Florida Fish and Wildlife, 2021.