Manatee Mortality Event Along The East Coast: 2020-2021
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Last updated August 17, 2021
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) continues to investigate a high level of manatee mortalities and respond to manatee rescues along the Atlantic coast of Florida. Responding to live manatees in need of rescue remains a top priority for the FWC and partners from the Manatee Rehabilitation Partnership. FWC manatee biologists have been working hard to respond to public reports of distressed manatees and rescue manatees that need assistance (preliminary rescue summaries). The FWC takes manatee conservation seriously by actively implementing science-based conservation measures that are making a difference for manatees and habitat.
These manatee mortalities have met the criteria to be declared an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) by the Working Group on Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has confirmed the UME determination. Moving forward, the FWC will continue to coordinate closely with our federal partners, participate in the investigative team, and conduct analyses related to the cause of the UME. Working with these partners, FWC staff will explore both short- and long-term and small- and large-scale response options, including aquatic habitat restoration.
Environmental conditions in portions of the Indian River Lagoon remain a concern. Preliminary information indicates that a reduction in food availability, seagrass, is the primary factor in this event. We will continue with a comprehensive investigation and share information as it becomes available. The FWC has always done a rigorous and thorough job at investigating threats to manatees.
As water temperatures have warmed, manatees have naturally dispersed from their winter habitats, traveling to other areas of the state and beyond. This dispersal should lead manatees to better habitats. FWC will continue to closely monitor the situation and work with our partners.
Ways you can help manatees:
- Call FWC’s Wildlife Alert toll-free number: 1-888-404-FWCC (1-888-404-3922) or #FWC or *FWC on a cellphone if you see a sick, injured, dead or tagged manatee.
- Boaters will find them easier to spot if they wear polarized sunglasses and keep a lookout for signs of manatees such as the circular “footprints” they trace on the top of the water or their snouts sticking up out the water.
- Look, but don’t touch manatees. Keep your distance when boating, even if you are steering a canoe, kayak or paddleboard. Be a good role model for others so that they learn how to watch and enjoy manatees without disturbing the animals.
- The plate you buy matters; support FWC manatee rescues and research. Next time you renew your tag, consider a “Save the Manatee” license plate!
- Show your support for manatee conservation by proudly displaying a manatee decal. These high-quality stickers feature original artwork and are available from your local Tax Collector’s office with a $5 donation.
If you see a dead, sick, or injured manatee, please report it to the FWC so our staff can assess and respond as appropriate. You can reach us by calling our Wildlife Alert Hotline at 1-888-404-FWCC (1-888-404-3922) or #FWC on a cellphone.
While the investigation is ongoing, initial assessments indicate the high number of emaciated manatees is likely due to a decline in food availability. Seagrass and macro algae coverage in this region and specifically in the Indian River Lagoon has declined significantly.
Florida has invested over $2 million annually for manatee conservation. FWC staff respond to public reports of dead or distressed manatees. You can reach us by calling our Wildlife Alert Hotline at 1-888-404-FWCC (1-888-404-3922) or #FWC or *FWC on a cellphone. FWC staff and partners continue to prioritize response to manatees in distress. The FWC coordinates manatee rescue operations and transports manatees as needed to partnering critical care facilities. The FWC and collaborators are working with critical care facilities to get a better understanding of problems in manatees rescued from the Atlantic coast region. Manatee Rescue Information
The FWC retrieves carcasses of dead animals to collect data that will provide insight into the high level of mortality along Florida’s Atlantic Coast. FWC manatee biologists verify and record the location of all reported manatee carcasses. Depending on the condition and current circumstances, staff collect biological information and samples, and may perform a necropsy to determine cause of death. Staff often leave carcasses in secluded areas to decompose naturally as it is a source of food for many other species.
The FWC monitors impacts of large-scale mortality events of the manatee population through assessing multiple paths of information including adult survival rates and reproduction that help improve our understanding of population dynamics. As with all species, future resiliency is associated with population size and distribution, growth rate, health, and habitat quality. Together these factors will impact the ability of manatees to cope with future changes and are the focus of conservation work.
Workshop on July 29, 2021
The FWC invited over 160 individuals from approximately 60 organizations and agencies (e.g., city, county, state, and federal government agencies, non-profit organizations, universities, private industry) to attend an all-day virtual workshop about aquatic habitat restoration targets, opportunities, and funding along Florida’s east coast, with a special focus on the Indian River Lagoon.
The July 29, 2021 workshop’s morning session included background information presentations addressing the recent manatee mortalities, history of the ecosystem changes in the affected areas, barriers to estuarine habitat recovery, and permitting required to complete restoration and enhancement projects. During the afternoon session, brief presentations of some of the short and long-term on-going and potential estuarine habitat restoration projects in the Indian River Lagoon were presented. The 100+ attendees then focused their discussions on facilitating collaboration, ways to scale the projects, how to avoid duplication of efforts, and how and where to focus restoration projects in the short- and long-term.
The details from the workshop provided FWC staff with a more complete picture of some of the potential work being planned for the IRL and surrounding areas and with which partners to engage. This larger understanding will aid FWC staff in their discussions about aquatic habitat restoration projects, especially those related to the $8 million provided to the Division of Habitat and Species Conservation during fiscal year 21-22 for habitat restoration related projects that will benefit manatees. The success of the projects discussed could help provide momentum to larger, costlier, and more coordinated restoration efforts in the future.
Many factors are involved in the decline of aquatic vegetation. The Indian River Lagoon (IRL) has suffered significant loss of extensive seagrass beds since 2011.
Seagrass like many plants requires sunlight to grow. Since 2011, persistence of algal blooms has resulted in reduced water clarity and light penetration which led to a dramatic reduction of seagrass. Seagrass is the primary food for manatees in these systems.
Improving water clarity and light penetration is essential for the restoration of healthy seagrass communities. The FWC is working with a variety of partners including government agencies, environmental groups, and universities, to restore and enhance estuarine habitat in the IRL system as well as discuss and research options for large scale seagrass restoration.
The FWC is conducting a variety of aquatic habitat restoration efforts in the IRL system to improve habitat and water quality. These include:
- Oyster restoration
- Mangrove restoration
- Marsh restoration
- Clam restoration
- Living shoreline enhancements
In addition, when environmental conditions allow, it will be possible for agencies and their partners to effectively implement seagrass restoration in the IRL at a meaningful scale.
The FWC encourages the public to not feed manatees or other wildlife. While both state and federal law prohibit the feeding of manatees, the FWC and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are reviewing all options to support manatees. Feeding manatees can have adverse effects including:
- Supplemental feeding may encourage manatees to stay in the area where the habitat won’t support them even after water temperatures increase and manatees should naturally start dispersing to other areas of the state.
- Feeding manatees and other wildlife habituates them to human contact and can create unsafe conditions for both people and manatees.
A UME declaration means that the event is unexpected and involves a significant die-off of a marine mammal population, and requires immediate response. Investigating these events is key to understanding the cause, understanding potential impacts on the population as well as developing conservation measures that protect the species affected and the marine environment where the UME is taking place.
FWC has dedicated staff that are monitoring sea turtle health and mortality.
The stranded sea turtles needing rehabilitation are almost exclusively small green turtles from St. Johns County through Brevard County. We see this every year in this area during late winter/early spring and expect this year to follow the same trend of reducing in numbers over the coming weeks depending on weather conditions. The most likely explanation is that it involves turtles that didn’t quite make it through the winter – a time when reduced water temperatures make them more vulnerable to developing health issues. While we have also documented some stranded sea turtles in the Indian River Lagoon, the numbers there are within a normal range and we have seen no indications of starvation in these animals.
Report stranded, injured or dead sea turtles to the FWC Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922).
- Manatee Mortality Statistics
- Manatee population information
- Want to see a manatee? View the article Where Can I See Manatees in Florida?
- The Manatee Rescue & Rehabilitation Partnership (MRP)