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2021 Already Deadliest Year on Record for Florida Manatees

More manatees have died in the first six months of 2021 than in any other year on record, Florida wildlife authorities say.

(CN) ­— More manatees died in the first half of 2021 than in any other year in Florida’s recorded history, according to Sunshine State wildlife officials who say the unprecedented number of deaths stem from seagrass loss, pollution and boat strikes.

At least 841 manatees died between Jan. 1 and July 2, according to a recent report by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, or FWC. That breaks a previous record set in 2013, when an outbreak of toxic red tide resulted in 830 total manatee deaths.

The numbers represent a sharp increase from last year, when a total of 637 manatees died in Florida.

In March, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared the spike in manatee deaths an “unusual mortality event” and, in conjunction with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, announced a federal investigation into the cause of the deaths.

“Unprecedented manatee mortality due to starvation was documented on the Atlantic coast this past winter and spring,” the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, a division of the FWC, wrote in an addendum to its most recent manatee mortality report. “Most deaths occurred during the colder months when manatees migrated to and through the Indian River Lagoon where the majority of seagrass has died off.”

More than half of the manatees who died this year were found in the lagoon, a 156-mile-long estuary that links to the Atlantic Ocean and serves as the aquatic mammal’s winter home.

According to the St. Johns River Water Management District, a regulatory agency that oversees the Indian River Lagoon, the estuary has seen significant losses of seagrass coverage caused by toxic algal blooms fed by human-produced nutrient pollution over the last decade. Seagrass is a major food source for manatees.

In June, Florida Governor Ron Desantis said he would not declare a state of emergency to help restore the Indian River Lagoon. A coalition of 16 environmental groups and businesses had called for the Republican governor to step in to rehabilitate the area.

Elizabeth Fleming, senior Florida representative at Defenders of Wildlife, said Monday that annual mortality events affecting manatees and other species are likely to continue to occur without more environmental oversight in Florida.

“This catastrophic die-off foreshadows the manatee’s future unless we take immediate and effective action,” Fleming said. “They’re starving to death… This situation cannot continue.”

“We must reduce pollution in our waterways and invest in protecting and restoring vital habitat, such as the Great Florida Riverway. Quick action will be critical to prevent ongoing losses of manatees,” Fleming added.

The FWC report points out that the long-term health effects of prolonged starvation in manatees that survived this year’s mortality event is not yet known.

“We’ve sunk to a new low, setting a new record for annual manatee deaths, and it is only July,” Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said in an email Monday. “With hundreds of manatees starving to death on the east coast, and dozens more on the west coast dead from suspected red tide exposure, this should be the only wake-up call we need to start getting serious about our water pollution problem.”

Boat strikes have also killed at least 63 manatees this year, up from the five-year average of 60 watercraft-related deaths.

Once classified as an endangered species, the Florida manatee was reclassified by the federal government as threatened in 2017. Environmentalists have asked that the manatee be considered endangered once again.

Conflicting estimates put Florida’s manatee population between 6,300 and 7,500.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission confirmed Monday that the agency is monitoring the manatee mortality situation.

Follow Kayla Goggin on Twitter

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