Manatee deaths rise as pollutants kill Florida seagrass

By Brendan Farrington | Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. “Manatees have starved to death by the hundreds along Florida’s east coast because algae bloom and pollutants kill the seagrass the beloved marine mammals eat,” a wildlife officer told a House committee Tuesday.

Seagrass has been decimated in the 156-kilometer-long Indian River Lagoon and adjacent areas. The aquatic plant thrives in clear sandy water, but turbid water due to the algae and contaminants has made it harder for seagrass to survive, said Melissa Tucker, director of the Division of Habitat and Species Conservation at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

“Our deaths across the country from all sources have been higher than ever before,” Tucker told the House State Affairs Committee. “It’s a hunger problem. There is not enough seagrass available for the manatees. ”

Officials noted a sharp increase in deaths from manatees from December to May when sea urchins congregate in warm water. During that period, 677 manatees died, typically only 156 dying, Tucker said.

While manate mortality equalized after May, with mammals expanding their range in summer and fall, the state has recorded 968 deaths in manatees in 2021, with more than two months left of the year. The previous annual height was 830 deaths in 2013, Tucker said.

Major manatee deaths in recent years have been attributed to several transient events such as algae blooms and unusually cold weather, but the seagrass problem may take longer to reverse, Tucker said. Efforts are being made to replant seagrass and restore mussels and oyster beds so molluscs can help filter the water, she said.

β€œIt’s something we will try to manage and improve over the years and maybe decades,” she said.

Republican State Attorney Thad Altman, who represents Brevard County, where manatees typically thrive, said it will be difficult to recover seagrass unless the water is cleared. He said the manatees now even eat seagrass roots and kill the aquatic plants permanently.

“We’ve literally had a disaster on our hands,” Altman said.

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