ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — More than 1,000 manatees have died in Florida so far this year, eclipsing a previous record as the threatened marine mammals struggle with starvation due to polluted waters.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported the updated total for 2021 on Wednesday. The 1,003 manatee deaths are far above the 637 recorded last year and well above the previous mark of 830 set in 2013.
The commission wants state lawmakers to approve $7 million for seagrass restoration, manatee rehabilitation centers and other projects.
Belisama the manatee was extremely underweight when hikers found her. She was at least 700 pounds lighter than normal.
Tiffany Burns, Zoo Tampa’s director of conservation research and behavior, said her team is helping rehab 18 manatees right now, but that’s just a tiny percentage of what’s needed as a crisis continues to see the marine mammals die in record numbers.
“To actually hit over a thousand. That’s difficult. Especially knowing we are not even through the entire year," Burns said.
Authorities expect even more deaths as Florida enters the winter months when the animals congregate in warm-water areas with dwindling food supplies.
Most of the deaths are happening on Florida’s east coast with the vegetation manatees feed off just not there.
“We have algae blooms. We have runoff. All of these things contribute to water quality. And unfortunately, the animal that’s affected by that is number one the manatee," said Burns.
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Officials said the Indian River Lagoon in Brevard County lost nearly 60% of its seagrass in the last decade.
Zoo Tampa’s manatee rehab center cares for the big and small ones. The goal is to return them to the wild.
They said everyone can play a part in their well-being by caring about the health of lakes and rivers.
“Simply as paying attention to what fertilizer they use on their grass. Runoff is a big problem for our waterways," said Burns.
Collisions with boats and red tide have also played a role in a large number of manatee deaths.
Lawmakers are considering a bill that would move them to endangered status.