Dead manatee upside down in Florida.

Manatees dying of starvation in Florida

Hundreds of manatees have died in 2021 in the state of Florida already in May, more than the amount that died all of last year. These creatures also known as sea cows, are large aquatic mammals often found in shallow, slow moving rivers and coastal waters. In the U.S., they are mostly concentrated in Florida.

People have been discovering dead manatees floating by their docks and scientists think human waste is crippling their food sources. 649 Florida manatees have died already in 2021. 637 had died all of last year (and many mutilated (like the manatee with Trump below). Experts say a lack of seagrass is the problem and they are starving to death. They say algae blooms are causing a lot of the seagrass to disappear in some parts of the state.

Manatees are herbivores, so they only eat plants. They live in freshwater, saltwater, brackish water, so they eat plants in any of those environments and seagrass is one of those plants they do eat mostly migrating up and down the coast of Florida, with a few actually traveling as far as Georgia or beyond. 

Moreover during the winter months, with the colder winter temperatures if the water dropped below 68 degrees these mammals become cold-stressed, and that also causes their death. The other reason are boats that hit them by accident.

Human waste as a reason for the lack of seagrass beds 

Stormwater runoff causing red tide and other algae blooms, which kills seagrass, and creates dead zones would be the culprit. In agriculture, the water run off from livestock manure that comes from animals created for human consumption cause decay of water quality.

The chance of the water quality being restored is a number less than zero. There’s too much money in sugar cane and green lawns for that to happen. Industrial agriculture pollution is an insurmountable force, environmentally and politically.

One aspect not often discussed is that manatees can and do migrate to better feeding areas. In our case that’s currently Cuba, which has massive protected shallow seagrass meadows that far exceed anything in Florida in terms of size and quality. Trying to keep manatees artificially tied to a single location is a form of human intervention that is useless at best and harmful at worst. Protecting the environment so manatees want to keep coming here should be the main goal.

Federal wildlife officials agreed March 22 the die-off should be considered an Unusual Mortality Event, or a UME. That designation allows the federal government, working with the state and nonprofit organizations, to investigate what’s causing the die-off and to take quick action to prevent more manatees from dying.

Why aren’t manatees being fed by wildlife officials until the water quality is restored?

According to the Save the Manatee website, many people don’t realize that it is wrong to give food or water to manatees. They are wild animals. Giving them food or water disrupts their behavior and natural diet and could eventually kill them.

That is because even though manatees have a natural fear of people and loud noises, they can lose that fear when they associate people with a reward, like being pet or fed. Instead of becoming aggressive, manatees can become too friendly for their own good.

But some other efforts to re establish their environment and eating spots have been tried. A program started about 30 years ago to reduce nitrogen runoff in Tampa Bay limited fertilizer use in summer months and upgraded wastewater treatment was successful and resulted in large increases in submerged aquatic vegetation in the Bay, which are food for manatees and habitat for many other species including fishes.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, anyone convicted of violating state law faces maximum fines of $500 and/or up to 60 days in prison. Conviction for violating federal protection laws is punishable by fines up to $100,000 and/or one year in prison. 

It’s important to note that it’s also prohibited to give them freshwater. Below a fisherman is seen giving water to a manatee but that is also illegal. Manatees even though they live in salty or brackish water they need to go back to a freshwater source to rehydrate.

A fisherman giving water to a manatee from a boat.

Where to see manatees in Florida and swim, kayak or paddle with manatis 

Today, the range-wide population is estimated to be at least 13,000 manatees, with more than 6,500 in the southeastern United States and Puerto Rico. They  live in marine, brackish, and freshwater systems in coastal and riverine areas throughout their range. Preferred habitats include areas near the shore featuring underwater vegetation like seagrass and eelgrass. 

They feed along grass bed margins with access to deep water channels, where they flee when threatened. Florida manatees can be found throughout Florida for most of the year. However, they cannot tolerate temperatures below 68 degrees Fahrenheit for extended periods of time, and during the winter months these cold temperatures keep the population concentrated in peninsular Florida. 

Today manatees are found in the southeastern U.S., eastern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panamá, Nicaragua, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and in the Bahamas.

If you want to see them, good places to see manatees include Blue Spring State Park (Florida), the Haulover Canal Manatee Viewing Area (Florida), and Three Sisters Springs (Florida). And the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commision has a long list of places and sanctuaries for the protection of this species: 

Areas where manatees live in North America, Central America and the Caribean and South America.

How to use your waterfront property to help manatees

Conservationists and Volusia County homeowners are teaming up to help save manatees and other marine life in the Indian River Lagoon and Crystal River (for info on the Manatee Festival Crystal River).

The organization Riverside Conservancy is now using a grant to restore a quarter mile of shoreline on the Indian River Lagoon and it’s asking waterfront property owners in Volusia County to volunteer their shorelines so the organization can put structures in the water that mimic the natural structures that are found whether it be oyster reefs, mangrove roots, things that can retrofit seawalls,” she said.

The initiative won’t cost the property owners anything and the organization will do all the work. On the other hand, homeowners get to keep their view, have their dock and they can have abundant fish, while at the same time also helping prevent flooding and erosion.

The manatee defaced with Trump sign

Manatees still face the same threats as always and their future remains uncertain as more people move to Florida and our waterways become more crowded. The largest known cause for manatee deaths is still collision with watercraft and that problem is likely to increase.

Manatees are protected by the Endangered Species act, and  it is a federal criminal offense to harass them, but that didn’t stop folks from etching into the backs of a manatee the word “Trump”. 

Federal wildlife authorities reported in January 2021 that someone carved the word Trump into the back of a manatee found swimming in Citrus County around 75 miles north of the Tampa bay area.  Hailey Warrington found the defaced manatee swimming on Sunday in the Blue Hole headwaters in North Florida.

Anyone with any information on who might be behind it is asked to call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation commission. 

The picture of the manatee defaced with the Trump sign in Florida.

The letters seem to have been formed by someone scraping away sections of the algae on the manatee’s back, the FWS spokesperson explained, but It’s unclear if the manatee was physically hurt at all. But even if no physical damage was done to the animal, the act is still likely a disturbing crime.

The guide below orients boaters on how to deal with manatees.

  • Consult a boater’s guide for each county you visit to learn the manatee speed zones.
  • Obey posted speed zone signs and keep away from posted manatee sanctuaries.
  • Avoid seagrass beds and shallow areas where manatees might be feeding.
  • Stay in deep-water channels, but beware manatees travel in them too.
  • Don’t jet ski, water ski or do other high-speed watersports where manatees frequent. Stick to land-locked lakes or waters well offshore.
  • Wear polarized glasses to eliminate the sun’s glare and see below the water surface.
  • Look for a snout, back, tail, flipper as well as a flat spot or swirl of water, which manatees create when they flap their tail to dive or swim.
  • Remain at least 50 feet away from a manatee and cut your motor to sit and observe it. Remember, it is illegal to feed and give water to manatees.

Sound of the manatee video

Curiosity: The day Christopher Columbus mistakes manatees for mermaids

On January 9, 1493, Christopher Columbus is sailing off the coast of the Dominican Republic, when he sees what he believes are three mermaids. He was absolutely serious in this conviction and reported that they were “not half as beautiful as they are painted”, according to History.

Columbus mistook the manatees for mermaids and wrote “they are not so beautiful as they are said to be, for their faces had some masculine traits. Mermaid sightings by sailors, when they weren’t made up, were most likely manatees, dugongs or Steller’s sea cows (which became extinct by the 1760s due to over-hunting)

Max Francisco

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