You’d be hard pushed to say a bad word against a manatee. These soothing, sentient beings have a calming way about them, living out their days chewing on aquatic plants and bumbling their way through the waters of the US, as well as central and South America. Passive and gentle creatures they may be, but statistics from Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission appear to show manatees in the region are seemingly under attack, with more than 700 manatees already dying in Florida this year – more than double the yearly average.
2018 holds the record for manatee deaths with 804 recorded, but that was for the whole year, and just 6 months into 2021, 749 manatees have died.
Exactly what is devastating the already struggling population of Florida manatees (Trichechus manatus latirostris) isn’t yet known for certain. While these animals have come under attack from humans, with one earlier this year having “Trump” etched into its back, it’s likely that a variety of factors are at play in their demise. Florida manatees are afforded special protection owing to their vulnerability as both a threatened and slow-moving (i.e. easy to access) animal. These gentle giants are protected under the 1972 US Marine Mammal Protection Act, the 1973 US Endangered Species Act, and the 1978 Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act, and as such interfering with them carries a heavy penalty.
An investigation is currently underway to try and find some actionable answers to why they are dying at what appears to be a record-breaking rate in 2021, with fears mounting over what this event might mean for the survival of the species.
One threat facing these veggie-loving animals is that their favorite snack, seagrass, is rapidly disappearing. Blooms of algae are thought to be responsible, a common occurrence in areas where agriculture and other anthropogenic activities lead to a spike in certain nutrients in the waterways. Such blooms can lead to eutrophication as the thick mats of algae block out sunlight and use up oxygen threatening both animal and plant life.
Boat traffic leading to vessel strikes is another problem for these large but surprisingly hard to spot (from the surface) animals. It’s also thought that the use of pesticides containing glyphosate may be polluting the waterways and having a negative impact on the survival of individual manatees.
With the deaths mounting up so rapidly in just the first half of 2021, it’s currently estimated that around 1,000 animals could die across the course of the year. With just 7,500 thought to be alive in the wild, that’s a catastrophic loss to species already grappling with its survival. Beyond losing a charismatic species in this part of the world, Florida manatees' extinction could have a knock-on effect on the rest of the ecosystem, destabilizing the inter-specific relationships that keep the freshwater habitats in balance.