Wildlife experts weigh in as starvation still poses threat to Florida manatees

Posted at 10:15 AM, Aug 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-01 10:15:40-04

LEE COUNTY, Fla. — Something we’ve been following recently is recent algal bloom sightings in Southwest Florida.

Those blooms can be deadly for animals — like fish and manatees — living in the waters those blooms take over. Because of this, there’s been a growing concern from those within the wildlife community that manatees could be endangered once again.

“I could see in the near future us having a hard time finding manatees.”

It’s a thought that could soon become reality— manatees going extinct.

“We’ve lost over half the population since 2017," says Ranger Rob Howell, a naturalist and zoologist. "They’re dropping incredibly quickly.”

Between January 1st and July 15, a total of 631 manatee deaths have been confirmed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Compare that to 864 during the same time frame last year when a record number of manatees died, most from a lack of their food supply— sea grass — which has been continuously wiped out by pollution like red tide.

“The manatees are exposed to the toxins of a bloom like that," says Martine de Wit, veterinarian with the FWC. "Those toxins stick to the sea grass and so they ingest that and they get an acute toxic reaction to that where they basically get paralyzed and they drown.”

It’s these threats that Ranger Rob is all too familiar with.

“The sea grass is diminishing much more rapidly than it has in the past so now the manatees seem a little more sporadic with where they’re going," he says. "Trying to find more food, trying to find shelter and places like that where they can stay for the season.”

Howell says ongoing problems with pollution and reckless boating have created a hit to those food supplies. Pollution from fertilizers and boats shredding sea grass.

"The pollution from pesticides and herbicides and fertilizers when we shouldn’t be using fertilizers," said Howell. "That’s all going right into the water making it darker and cloudier. Then the sea grass itself can’t photosynthesize- it can’t grow, it can’t spread and it can’t survive.”

As it stands, manatees are listed as a ‘threatened’ species. They have not been considered endangered since 2017. But that could all soon change if we’re not mindful of our water loving neighbors…

“The fact that they’re not endangered doesn’t mean that there is no concern for them,” said de Wit.

"If we lose our water, mangrove trees, and manatees, we’re going to start losing people here," said Howell. "They’re not going to want to be here. People come here to enjoy it so don’t destroy it.”

If you see a manatee in distress or injured, you're asked to call the wildlife alert hotline at 1-888-404-FWCC.