More than 1,000 manatees have died in Florida so far this year, eclipsing a previous annual record as the threatened marine mammals struggle with starvation due to pollution in the water.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported the updated total on Wednesday. The 1,003 manatee deaths so far in 2021 is many more than the 637 recorded last year and well above the previous mark of 830 set in 2013.
Slow-moving, bulky manatees have long struggled to coexist with humans. Boat strikes account for some deaths and many injuries. But state officials and environmental groups say polluted water runoff from agriculture, sewage and other man-made development has caused algae blooms in estuaries, choking off the seagrass upon which manatees rely. Climate change is worsening the problem.
Authorities expected another bad year for manatees, with more deaths to come as Florida enters the winter months when the animals congregate in warm-water areas where food supplies have dwindled. Seagrass beds on the state's eastern coast have been hit especially hard.
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To compound the problem, manatees are slow to reproduce. According to the nonprofit Save the Manatee Club — co-founded by Florida troubadour Jimmy Buffet — one calf is born every two to five years after a manatee reaches sexual maturity at about age 5. Twin births are rare.
“Manatees are in serious trouble,” ZooTampa at Lowry Park, one of four main manatee critical care centers in Florida, said in a statement Wednesday. “The loss of more than 1,000 manatees this year is deeply concerning and will have serious repercussions for years to come.”
The commission is asking state lawmakers to approve $7 million in the upcoming legislative session for seagrass restoration, manatee rehabilitation centers and other projects. Lawmakers approved $8 million last year.
Manatees were listed as an endangered species beginning in 1966, but their status was changed to threatened in 2017. A new push is on to restore the endangered label to bring more resources and attention to the problem.
The wildlife commission estimates there are currently about 7,500 manatees, also known as sea cows, living in Florida waters. Viewing areas around winter warm-water spots are a big tourist attraction around the state.