Manatees dying at alarming rate in Sunshine State; lack of food a concern

Reporter: Stephanie Byrne
Published: Updated:
FILE: Manatees swimming as a group. (Credit: WINK News/FILE)
FILE: Manatees swimming as a group. (Credit: WINK News/FILE)

Manatees are one of Florida’s many well-known locals, but they’re dying at a staggering rate.

In just the first five months of the year, 761 manatees died across the state. That’s already more than all of 2020, which totaled 637 deaths, according to FWC.

Seagrass is a big food source for manatees, but the grass is dying off in some Florida waterways. Not only that, but it’s also a meal and habitat for other marine life.

From boats to the cold, manatees are no strangers to adversity by man or the environment.

However, another unseen problem beneath the surface could be contributing to an alarming number of Florida manatee deaths right now: No food.

Dr. Rick Bartleson is a research scientist with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation. He said the mortality of the manatees on the East Coast is likely due to the lack of seagrass in the Indian River and Biscayne Bay.

Underwater plants can die from changes in salinity, nutrients, and algae.

“That overgrowth of algae, either phytoplankton or macroalgae, because of nutrient enrichment, surface runoff is the main problem,” he said.

That’s why he grows submerged plants in large tanks; think of them as salad bowls for manatees.

“We’ve been growing them for more than 10 years and we’ve been planting the grass in the river where there’s not enough grass for the manatees to eat right now,” Bartleson said.

Problem spots he’s seen in Southwest Florida include waters around Matlacha and Sanibel Island.

Seagrass isn’t just for eating, it’s home for some creatures.

There are other animals that suffer, too. “The fish, for example, the young fish like to hide in the seagrass blades, so there they have to either find somewhere else to hide there,” Bartleson said.

In Southwest Florida, 76 manatees have died in the first five months of the year.

The FWC says as water temperatures warm up, manatees have moved from their winter habitats.

The hope is they’ll find better waters with more food.

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