Manatee ‘graveyard’ found in Florida as algae blooms and cold
temperatures threaten mammal survival
Record numbers of manatees are starving to death in Florida, struggling to find food after an unusually cold winter and an attack of algae blooms.
Locals have reported finding “manatee cemeteries” in the northern Indian River Lagoon on Florida’s Atlantic coast, which is a central hub for marine animals.
The death toll – 432 – so far this year is nearly three times the five-year average of 146 deaths between Jan. 1 and March 5, the South Florida SunSentinel newspaper reported, citing figures from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Last year, the state recorded 637 manatee deaths and in 2019, 607.
Experts blame a combination of cold weather, a lack of seagrass to eat, and contaminated waterways.
Decreasing seagrass levels in the lagoon – largely due to algal blooms – have reduced the amount of food available to manatees. The manatees swam much farther than usual to find grass, which is their main source of food. But they don’t find that many, so they go back hungry to the hotter water.
“A manatee will choose starvation over cold death,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity.
Environmentalists warn the famine is so severe that there are fears the manatee will be completely wiped out from the region by the end of the year.
Officials said cold stress has so far caused 41 deaths. There were 52 cold stress deaths among manatees in 2020, officials said.
As the waters warm up in the spring, manatees could swim to other places and feed more easily. Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, said any reprieve will be temporary and is already worried about next winter.
The state, he said, must work on rescue plans and health assessments to be ready. Restoring seagrass and reducing pollution will take longer. Wildlife officials reported rescuing 52 manatees in early March, including five in Brevard.
“It could even be worse next year,” Mr. Rose said. “This is a trend which, if it were to continue, would be very worrying, … if it happened in several places, it would be a horrible situation.”