Nearly 1,000 of Florida’s beloved manatees have died as algae depleted their food

Alexandra Ferguson

(CNN) – Nearly 1,000 of Florida’s beloved manatees have died since the beginning of this year, mostly from starvation, according to wildlife authorities. The 984 manatee deaths recorded so far this year are more than double last year’s total of 483, according to mortality statistics provided by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). its acronym in English).

Most of the deaths were associated with starvation due to a lack of seagrass near warm-water refuge sites in the Indio River Lagoon, the FWC said, noting that a comprehensive investigation of the deaths continues.

Manatees, affectionately nicknamed “sea cows,” typically weigh around 450 kilograms and normally inhabit the warm, shallow waters off the Florida coast.

But when nutrients from sewage or runoff containing fertilizers, microplastics, or toxic chemicals seep into a manatee’s marine habitat, whether freshwater or saltwater, they can upset the water balance and lead to blooms forming. harmful algae.

Algal blooms cover the surface of the water and shade the seagrasses that depend on the sun to survive, killing them.

Toxic algae in Florida killed 200 tons of marine life three years ago, and now they threaten to return

The seagrasses that survive the malevolent blooms are over-exploited by manatees, whose food sources have been reduced, so the plants cannot grow back quickly enough to continue feeding them, he told CNN earlier this year. Michael Walsh, an associate clinical professor at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, specializing in aquatic animal health.

Manatee feeding in a recovery tank at the David A. Straz, Jr. Critical Care Center for Manatee at ZooTampa in Lowry Park in Tampa, Florida on January 19, 2021.

As seagrasses die, manatees begin to eat less or eat other plants that do not provide them with the necessary nutrition, and they begin to lose weight. Over time, this leads to malnutrition and eventually starvation, Walsh said.

The reason manatees are dying 4:13

Manatee can travel hundreds of miles to find a new source of food and, hopefully, warm water. But the colder it gets, the more food they have to eat to stay warm, Walsh said. If there is less food, they will succumb more quickly to cold stress – despite their impressive girth, they don’t have enough fat to keep them warm when the water temperature drops below 20 degrees Celsius.

The last comparable unusual mortality event occurred in 2010, when temperatures in Florida fell to record lows in a cold snap that proved extremely dangerous to manatees. More than 760 manatees died that year, according to the FWC.

“We are committed to working with partners and our dedicated funding to identify the actions necessary to conserve Florida’s manatee population,” FWC’s Carly Jones told CNN. “We will continue to evaluate the next steps according to the learnings from this event.”

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