A sharp rise in the death of manatees in Florida, more than 1,000 in 2021, is leading to renewed calls for stronger protection. The deaths are due to environmental changes leading to starvation. according to marine biologists. The 2021 figure is more than twice the number recorded the year before, and is a grim milestone.
The dire situation is leading some conservation groups to consider whether to sue and others to find ways to feed the manatees. The lawsuit would target the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for not keeping the manatee’s water habitat clean enough for their food to grow. Friends of the manatees want the animals returned to endangered status.
Florida manatees are large slow moving marine animals that tend to winter in Florida. In other times of the year the creatures disperse as far as Texas and Massachusetts. Usually herbivores, they do sometimes ingest small creatures. The rising death rate appears closely linked to the disappearance of their primary food source. Manatees consume seagrass as the bulk of their diet. In one manatee habitat, seagrass is down 58 percent over the last 11 years.
Sea grasses are pretty much what the name suggests. Seagrasses are ocean plants that resemble terrestrial grass. They are often confused with seaweeds. Sea grasses apparently returned to the ocean millenia ago and today there are 72 species in four families. Seven varieties exist in Florida, covering up to 2.7 million acres. They require water clarity to thrive.
The problem is that pollution and algae blooms block sunlight. Pollution includes wastewater and microplastics. Algae grows in the murky water. The grasses have been disappearing at an alarming rate, leading to starvation for the manatees.
Manatees have faced threats from humans before. Often, the slow moving animals are victims of collisions with boats. The creatures also get trapped in crab fishing lines and drown or get caught in canal locks or flood control structures. Manatees can also ingest fish hooks and toxic trash. They were on the endangered species list until 2017 when it was thought they were recovering and calls are beginning now to relist them in the face of the new threats