Wildlife officials and environmental groups in Florida are raising an alarm over the unprecedented die-off this year of manatees, the large, slow-moving sea animals that are the southeastern U.S. state’s official marine mammal.
As of October 1, there have been 959 documented deaths of the iconic, gentle, and slow-moving relative of the elephant, and it is expected that deaths will surpass the 1,000 mark by the end of the year.
While several factors are contributing to this surge in deaths, experts believe climate change could be playing a major role. And it is no mystery as to what is causing the deaths, and researchers and rescuers alike are shocked at what is happening.
In the last ten years, seagrass, the primary food for the animals, has been steadily declining. After postmortem examinations on the bodies were done in the first half of the year, it was found that the vast majority of manatees had starved to death.
“There is a huge sense of urgency,” said Gil McRae, director of the state Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. “We’re uncertain how long it’s (high manatee deaths) going to be.” The reason? Seagrass on which the so-called sea cows depend on for food is also dying as water quality declines due to fertilizer runoff, wastewater discharges, and polluted water that is increasingly diverted on purpose from Lake Okeechobee to coastal estuaries, according to the Associated Press.
These manmade pollutants can cause algae blooms so thick that seagrass can’t get the sunlight it needs to survive. Since 2009 about 58 percent of the seagrass has been lost in the Indian River Lagoon, state estimates show.
SeaWorld’s Senior Animal Care specialist Maggie Mariolis knows first-hand what is happening to Florida’s manatees. “It’s been especially hard this year seeing them come in so sick, seeing them come in where you know it’s been a long time that they’ve been searching for food,” she said according to BayNews9.
“It wasn’t simply a boat strike that happened momentarily – you know that this is something that this animal has been dealing with and potentially suffering for weeks if not months,” she said. “We don’t know when it going to stop.”
Cora Berchem, a researcher with Save the Manatee Club had this to say about the manatee die-offs:
“There are so many levels of climate change, it does include warmer weather and potentially warmer water which sounds like a good thing for manatees, but it can also mean increased sea level rise which can kill off aquatic vegetation not adapted to these levels of salinity. There is really almost nowhere for manatees to be safe, we are facing this humongous seagrass die-off on the Atlantic coast, increased red tides on the gulf coast.”
According to VOANews, the Associated Press reports the Fish and Wildlife Commission is calling for state lawmakers to approve another $7 million for seagrass restoration projects, manatee rehabilitation centers, and other projects.