Manatee Crisis: Florida Saw Record Number of Deaths in 2021

by Jon D. B.

For a species already teetering on the brink of extinction, greatly exceeding previous records for yearly manatee deaths in Florida is catastrophic.

According to preliminary data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 1,101 manatees died in Florida waters in 2021. This number reflects only the deaths FWC can confirm too. It sparked further fervor from conservationists trying to save the species.

Among many, starvation is the leading cause of death for Florida’s manatees. The seagrass these gentle giants depend on is disappearing faster than the endangered animals themselves. Efforts to plant fields of sea grass have been paramount throughout 2021. But we can only hope it isn’t too little too late.

Previous Death Record: 830 Manatees Died in 2013

The previous record for Florida manatee deaths in a single year was 830 in 2013, an already alarming number. And as FWC’s data shows, manatee conservation isn’t able to keep up with the loss of habitat and food the marine mammals are experiencing.

Tragically, 2021’s new record doubles the five-year average of manatee deaths in Florida, The Hill cites. These numbers were bolstered by March’s mass die-off in the Indian River Lagoon on Florida’s Atlantic Coast. FWC would declare it an “Unusual Mortality Event,” enabling state and federal aid throughout the remaining year.

“Environmental conditions in portions of the Indian River Lagoon remain a concern. Researchers have attributed this UME to starvation due to the lack of seagrasses in the Indian River Lagoon,” FWC states on their website

In addition to starvation, this same report lists pollution as a leading cause of manatee death. “In recent years, poor water quality in the Lagoon has led to harmful algal blooms and widespread seagrass loss,” FWC continues.

To combat this, wildlife officials would approve the supplemental feeding of Indian River Lagoon’s malnourished manatees in late 2021. But multiple other causes of death continue to plague the species, including boat collisions and poaching.

Conservationists Fight To Save Florida Icon

HOMOSASSA, FLORIDA – OCTOBER 05: Manatees swim in the Homosassa River on October 05, 2021 in Homosassa, Florida. Conservationists, including those from the Homosassa River Restoration Project, plant seagrass in the area to help restore the natural habitat for manatees and provide a feeding ground for the mammals, following a record year in manatee deaths in Florida. The deaths were primarily from starvation due to the loss of seagrass beds. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Of the animals that were able to be necropsied in 2021, 103 manatees died from watercraft collisions alone. By comparison, 184 died from natural causes.

“Natural causes” may be misleading, however. The changing climate continues to claim manatees through increasing water pollution, cold-snap induced stress, and the opposite: worsening algae blooms caused by unusual heatwaves.

As the image above shows, however, there is hope. Conservationists, including those from the Homosassa River Restoration Project, continue to plant seagrass in hopes of restoring the manatee’s natural habitat. But only time – and conservation – will tell if such efforts prove enough for this iconic Florida species.