Florida manatees are in jeopardy. Florida’s East and West coasts have been unseasonably warm in 2021, yet Florida manatees have been a resilient symbol of survival as they struggle to endure the changing temperature.
Unfortunately, the danger for manatees in Florida goes beyond a changing climate. Boats’ sharp motors continue to invade their habitats, putting them in danger and causing severe injuries from watercraft collisions.
But boats are now only one of the less detrimental foes on the manatees’ hit list. Their favorite source of food has started diminishing, leaving them with nothing but toxic algae. Although manatees should eat approximately 10% of their body weight daily (or about 100 pounds of grass as a 1,000-pound adult manatee, for example), they start eating less and lose weight over time, leading them to become unhealthy and malnourished..
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), manatees in Florida have recently suffered from an unusual mortality event (UME) — that is, as of May 21, approximately 750 manatees have died this year due to accumulative environmental stress decade after decade. The crisis, although deemed unusual by FWC, has been foreseen by manatee advocates for years.
Patrick Rose, the executive director of the nonprofit organization, Save the Manatee Club, founded 40 years ago, says that this ‘sentinel species’ is warning us to take action before it’s too late. If we don’t act upon this issue, worse things will happen, even to the point where our own lives are threatened.
Rose states that he simply will not “accept that we can’t fix this” — even though he is aware it will be extremely difficult.
If manatee deaths continue at the rate Rose predicts them to, nearly 1,000 manatees will die in Florida by the end of this year. But similar threats have been overcome; in the 1970s, West Indian manatees recovered from their near-extinction experience to a population of more than 7,000.
According to Michael Walsh, an expert in aquatic animal health and clinical associate professor at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, there are several reasons why manatees remain in danger, many of which are interconnected and therefore must be tackled collectively.
All of these larger problems are rooted in one foundational element: water.
Nutrients from wastewater, runoff containing fertilizers and microplastics or toxic chemicals, create a sea of problems for manatees that depend on a specific blend of nutrients to survive by creating an imbalance in the water as well as creating harmful algae blooms. These blooms are especially dangerous to seagrass on the water’s surface, shading the underwater, threatening those organisms that need the sun to survive, including the sea grass that makes up much of manatees’ food source.
This ongoing problem will start negatively affecting Florida’s environment, as well as tourism, fisheries, seafood, clean water and of course, its beloved manatees.
Unlike other more aggressive marine animal species such as dolphins and sharks, manatees are rather passive, unrushed and flee from conflict. However, they sadly have no choice but to fight for survival as humans continue to pollute their habitats.