An unusually high number of manatees died in Florida in the first five months of this year, environmental groups said, blaming it in part on resurgent algal blooms contaminating and destroying food sources.
The 749 fatalities recorded to May 21 surpassed the 637 deaths recorded in the whole of last year, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said.
The total is on course to exceed the high of 804, set in 2018.
The dying off of substantial areas of seagrass, the preferred food source of manatees, has caused starvation.
The situation has been exacerbated by the recurrence of inland blue-green algal blooms and phytoplankton blooms in Florida waterways.
Offshore, the discharge of toxic wastewater into Tampa Bay from the abandoned Piney Point fertilizer plant and the return of the red tide algal blooms have poisoned waters.
The commission said that 12 manatee deaths so far this year were from confirmed or suspected red tide blooms, but that the real figure could be far higher because not every dead manatee is necropsied.
In the Indian River Lagoon, an inland estuary that as many as one-third of the estimated remaining 7,500 manatees visit each year, 58 percent of the seagrass has disappeared since 2009, the St Johns River Water Management District said.
The commission said that too much nutrient runoff, specifically nitrogen and phosphorus, is either killing the seagrass outright or forming blooms that block sunlight.
“The vast majority of the once 80,000 acres of seagrass within the Indian River Lagoon have been lost to a continuing series of harmful algal blooms, which have themselves been caused by decades of human nutrient pollution from wastewater and runoff that continues unabated to this day,” Bob Graham, a former Florida governor and cofounder of Save the Manatee, said in an opinion piece in the Tampa Bay Times.
Meanwhile, the Center for Biological Diversity said that it was concerned over a March study that showed traces of pesticides in more than 55 percent of the manatees tested.
“Our beloved chubby sea cows are dodging boat strikes, reeling from red tide and starving in the Indian River Lagoon because of water pollution,” the center’s Florida director Jaclyn Lopez said. “It’s heartbreaking to add chronic glyphosate exposure to the list of factors threatening manatee survival.”
Graham said that the US Fish and Wildlife Service “dropped the ball” in 2019, when it changed the conservation status of manatees from endangered to threatened.
“They listened to anti-manatee groups and prematurely took manatees off the endangered species list over the objections of scientists and thousands of Americans who understood that the manatees’ future was not secure, but in fact could get much worse,” Graham said.
The service “should admit its mistake and relist the manatee as an endangered species,” he said.
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