Manatees are dying in Florida at an alarming rate, mostly because of starvation, as their main food source of seagrass is disappearing, experts say.
Manatee biologist James Powell said that close to 1000 manatees, also known as sea cows, died last year in Florida out of an estimated population of 6,000 to 7,000 manatees in the area.
Florida’s manatees are protected, but their environment is not. The animals are not only threatened by the lack of seagrass in their habitats but also by water pollution, injuries by boats and killed by red tide events, a toxic algal bloom.
“We have these red tide events that occur periodically, and it’s a toxic algae,” Powell said, adding that manatees can die from exposure to this toxin either by breathing it in or digesting it.
“You could see scarred manatees. You could pick up manatees that, you know, had been hit or, you know, sliced by propellers,” Powell said about manatees he found that were injured by boats.
Manatees in the western part of Florida are coping better thanks to lower human activity, fewer boats, less pollution and efforts to restore coastal ecosystems and grow seagrass.
Sea and Shoreline, an aquatic restoration organization headed by Powell, has been growing seagrass in the manatee sanctuary of Crystal River, the manatee capital on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
Seagrass is a food source for many different animals, such as manatees and turtles. “Quite a few different species rely on seagrasses,” biologist Jessica Mailliez, who works with Sea and Shoreline to restore seagrass, said.
Seagrass is being killed primarily by water pollution -fertilizer spills and human-caused waste- and other human activities, such as boats dragging their anchors across the seabed.
“In the last few years, we’ve seen a drastic decline in seagrass itself, both East Coast and West Coast, but more drastically on the east coast of Florida and notably in the Indian River Lagoon,” Mailliez said.
Their biggest restoration project is the Save Crystal River Project in Kings Bay, “where we are going to restore about 92 acres and hopefully more beyond that,” Mailliez told news agency Reuters. “We have fully completed about 80 acres thus far, and it’s been so successful that the 80 acres of grass that we’ve planted has actually expanded to over 250 acres.”
“We’ve completely flipped it from algae and muck, and no grass living to a plant-dominated system that is feeding manatees, that’s creating homes for fish and crabs and turtles, and really creating a beautiful environment for so many people to come enjoy,” Powell said.
Manatees are herbivorous and survive almost exclusively on seagrass. When humans feed manatees romaine lettuce -which was done in April in Indian River Lagoon to save them- they’ll also eat it. They can grow up to 13 feet (4 meters) long and weigh up to 3,500 pounds (1,600 kg). They are gentle and friendly and reproduce very slowly – a calf every 2-1/2 years.
“Besides being a very unique and intriguing animal, they also were fascinating in terms of the fact that they seemed to have so little fear of people,” Powell said.
In May, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida committed more than $30 million for manatee rescue, rehabilitation efforts, and habitat restoration for areas where manatees are highly concentrated. Last week, he issued an executive order with a proposed $3.5 billion investment to restore the national park Everglades and water environment protection over four years.
“So the recent executive order by Governor DeSantis is monumental. I think it’s going to make a big difference in terms of trying to restore our coastal ecosystems. And a lot of it is focused in that particular area where the problem is so bad for manatees in the Indian River Lagoon,” Powell said.
But he added that it’s unfortunate that helps comes now: “We’ve known about this problem for a long time. It was only when manatees that people love and adore began to die that it really sort of hit the national press.”
Powell also focuses on manatees and humans living together: “We’re going to have to remain diligent to make sure that we’re putting in protections, we’re creating wild space for them (manatees), and also trying to make sure that, you know, we can live with them and they can live with us. I can’t go out of this life without thinking that we’ve made a difference.”