Florida’s manatees are having a record year. Unfortunately, the records they are breaking are measured in carcasses washing ashore in our coastal communities. A “worst ever” red tide event earlier this year in southwest Florida and a lingering unusual mortality event in the Indian River Lagoon on Florida’s east coast have made it a really difficult year to be a manatee.
And to those who would argue that “we have more manatees, so we have more deaths,” let me stop you right there. The deaths we are seeing have nothing to do with the size of the manatee population. These deaths are not natural controls on a growing population. They are a loud and clear signal that our waterways are in trouble.
When the 2010 manatee mortality statistics were finalized at 766, that was significant, frightening and sad — several hundred more deaths than had ever been recorded in a single year, many the result of a prolonged cold weather event. It was regarded as an anomaly.
Here we are, less than three years later, having broken that 2010 record only 10 months into the year. As of Oct. 29, a total of 769 Florida manatees had died. Of those, 123 were stillborn, newborn or young calves less than five feet in length — another record, and 49 of these were in Brevard County, at the epicenter of the unusual mortality event linked to a variety of algae blooms and the loss of 47,000 acres of seagrass since 2010.
There’s little question that human mistreatment of the Indian River Lagoon had a hand to play in the disastrous cascade that began in 2010. On the southwest coast, during the peak of the red tide, manatees were dying so fast that scientists didn’t have the time or resources to conduct post-mortem exams on all of them. Red tide is another one of those natural events to which our species adds fuel to the proverbial fire with our coastal nutrient runoff.
If you haven’t seen and felt the effects of red tide or the algae blooms in the Indian River Lagoon, then this might not mean very much to you. Our species has a keen ability to ignore that which we don’t see ourselves. Unfortunately, until we all, each and every one of us, accept that we’re part of the problem, and even more importantly, an integral part of the solution, there’s little hope for our canaries in the coal mines: our manatees and their imperiled habitat.
Katie Tripp is the director of science and conservation for the Save the Manatee Club.