Florida manatee deaths dropped last year from a record high, but experts are warning that they are still dying off at an alarming rate.
The “sea cows” are largely dying of starvation, as seagrass disappears in the region.
“I think what we see now is a wake-up call,” manatee biologist James “Buddy” Powell told Reuters TV on Wednesday.
“You’ll have thousands of manatees in an area, to which they come sort of expecting, you know, ‘Where’s the buffet?’ And they arrive and it’s not there. So, they have been starving and dying as a consequence to that starvation but also other health concerns associated with malnutrition,” he said.
The starvation is caused by water pollution, according to the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), and preliminary statistics had shown as of last week that there were 800 recorded manatee deaths in 2022.
That number and the more than 1,100 that reportedly died in 2021 were higher than the average annual deaths of the mammals.
So far this year, 45 manatees have died, according to preliminary manatee mortality data from the FWC, with most not necropsied.
While the 7,000 to 8,000 estimated manatees are protected in the Sunshine State, their habitat is not.
They have also been affected by boats and red tide events, or toxic algal blooms.
Western Panhandle populations are reportedly fairing better due to lower human activity and increased efforts to grow seagrass, which is mostly killed off by pollution and other human activities like boats dragging anchors across the seabed.
Manatees are herbivorous and can also be fed romaine lettuce.
Officials in Florida are feeding thousands of pounds of lettuce to manatees at a warm-water power plant on Florida’s eastern coast to help slow starvation deaths.
Last year, threatened animals were given more than 200,000 pounds in an initial trial program. The feeding has helped some individual manatees, according to FWC manatee biologist Michelle Pasawicz.
“The manatees do appear to generally be in better shape overall,” she said during an online news conference. “I think we were helping some manatees for sure. A milder winter definitely gives the manatees a better chance.”
Officials say, however, that the long-term success, will be based on the restoration of seagrass.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced earlier this month that $100 million annually of his proposed $3.5 billion in environmental funding would be used “for priority projects to improve water quality” in the lagoon.
“The recent executive order by Gov. DeSantis is monumental,” Powell said. “I think it’s going to make a big difference in terms of trying to restore our coastal ecosystems.”
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.