(CN) — Federal officials are investigating an alarming spike in Florida manatee deaths after reports that over 500 of the aquatic mammals have been found dead since Jan. 1 of this year, setting a grim average of seven deaths per day.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared the crisis that has left as many as 539 manatees dead an “unusual mortality event.” A federal investigation in conjunction with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has been launched to determine the cause of the deaths.
The investigation comes after Florida Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy, a Democrat, sent a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asking the agency to look into what caused the sharp increase in manatee deaths between Jan. 1 and Feb. 26 of this year. During that time period, over 300 manatee deaths were reported to the commission.
An unusual mortality event is defined by the NOAA as an event that "involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population; and demands immediate response," in accordance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
According to the commission, there were a total of 637 manatee deaths in Florida for all of last year and 607 deaths in 2019.
The current Florida manatee population numbers over 6,300.
“Preliminary information indicates that a reduction in food availability is a contributing factor,” the state commission said in a statement Wednesday. " We will continue with a comprehensive investigation and share information as it becomes available.”
According to data from the NOAA, the Atlantic Florida manatee has never before been the subject of an unusual mortality event. The organization’s available records stretch back to 1991.
Now that an unusual mortality event has been declared, investigators will work with local groups to determine what’s causing the deaths, what role the environment might be playing, and the overall effect of the event on the manatee population.
The cause of death for a majority of the animals has not yet been determined.
According to the preliminary manatee mortality report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, stress from exposure to acute or prolonged cold weather caused 27 of the 539 deaths this year. In 2020, there were just 41 total cold stress deaths.
Only 167 of the deceased manatees have been necropsied so far to determine cause of death. Twenty were killed by watercraft, 66 were found to have died from natural causes and 36 were perinatal.Follow @KaylaGoggin_CNS
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.