NORTH PORT — Manatee deaths are setting records this year.

As of Dec. 17, the Florida Fish and Game Conservation Commission reported 1,075 died in 2021.

That's 245 more than the prior record of 830 manatee deaths in 2013.

To put it in perspective, in 2020 officials reported 824 manatee deaths. There were 607 deaths in 2019.

“This represents roughly double the average number of deaths in years prior, and it is the most deaths ever recorded in a year,” stated Elizabeth Forsyth of the Earth Justice Biodiversity Defense Program in a recent letter.

Many of the deaths are caused by starvation. Manatees seek warm water during cold snaps, but some of those areas have been depleted of seagrasses — a main food source — due to unusual algae growth.

More manatees died in East Coast waters, but Southwest Florida has contributed to the death count.

However, local manatees may be getting some help soon.

The National Wildlife Federation and Gulf Coast Community Foundation announced Tuesday a joint manatee habitat restoration project in Warm Mineral Springs and the Salt Creek.

This should be a benefit to the sea cows that winter in the mouths of those creeks in the Myakka River between North Port, Englewood and Venice.

Gulf Coast Community Foundation described in a press release the partnership as providing “a multilingual education for the local community about an upcoming restoration project as well as human impacts to the springs system and manatee habitat through updated and improved signage, one-on-one outreach and community meetings, informational brochures and social media.”

A $3 million habitat restoration project, coordinated through the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, will address key habitat and community needs.

Warm Mineral Springs and North Port creeks that empty into the Myakka River provide manatees vital warm water havens in the winter.

TROUBLE KEEPING WARM

Unlike seals and other sea mammals inhabiting colder waters, the manatee’s layers of fat provide have evolved to provide nutrition for the animal, but does not insulate it from the cold.

According to researchers, prolonged exposure to water temperatures below 68 degrees can trigger cold stress in manatees. As part of a complex chronic disease process, manatees can suffer weight loss, white skin lesions or abscesses, dehydration, constipation and other disorders and infections as a result of the cold.

Over the years, the creeks in this area are degraded with sedimentation, erosion, debris and other human disturbance by local residents and tourists.

“The National Wildlife Federation is delighted to partner with Gulf Coast Community Foundation on this important project,” said Jessica Bibza, senior specialist for wildlife policy in NWF’s Gulf restoration program.

“By helping to connect the diverse local community with this effort to strengthen critical manatee habitat, we can improve outcomes not just for the manatees — but for the local residents, economy and the thousands of visitors that come to this area each year.”

Gulf Coast Community Foundation CEO Mark Pritchett stated people come to Florida to experience its “natural beauty.”

“We are grateful for wonderful partners like the National Wildlife Federation who protect and restore critical wildlife habitats while teaching about the importance of our vanishing wildlife such as our gentle manatees,” he said.

TOUGH TIME IN BREVARD COUNTY

Manatees have died at record rates in Brevard County on the East Coast, where algae blooms inundated the Indian River Lagoon and other waters.

A die-off of seagrasses, choked off by the algae, triggered manatee deaths, many resulting from malnutrition. Of the more than 1,000 manatee deaths this year, Brevard accounts for 351 deaths.

“More than half of those deaths occurred in the northern Indian River Lagoon, due to starvation and malnutrition caused by seagrass die-offs attributable to nutrient pollution and associated harmful algal outbreaks,” Forsyth stated.

Algae blooms in the Indian River Lagoon and other Space Coast waterways is not new. High nutrient runoff and other sources of pollution are cited by the coalition as feeding the algae blooms.

The degradation of the Indian River Lagoon did not spring up overnight.

“Many factors are involved in the decline of aquatic vegetation,” said Carly Jones, spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “The Indian River Lagoon has suffered significant loss of extensive seagrass beds since 2011.”

Southwest Florida mortalities

As in years past, waterways in Lee County have proved the deadliest for manatees on Florida’s West Coast.

This year, wildlife officials report 109 dead manatees. Of those deaths, Lee accounted for 23 of the 109 perinatal deaths of immature manatees this year.

“Numbers of perinatal mortality fluctuate over the years, and this number can be higher from larger numbers of calves being born, a specific cause, underestimation of actual carcass size when verified through photos or complainant info or simply more carcasses being detected,” Jones said.

So far this year, in Charlotte County, wildlife officials report 25 manatee deaths, while Sarasota County accounted for 19 manatee deaths. Farther south, Collier added eight deaths to the list.

Earth Justice Biodiversity Defense Program has put the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on notice that a coalition of wildlife organizations intend to sue the federal agency and wants officials to enforce better protections for the manatees.

COVID restrictions did hamper the number necropsies to determine the specific causes of manatee deaths. That is not the only reason state wildlife officials cut back on the number of full necropsies.

“With the increasing numbers of carcasses statewide, our program no longer performs a full necropsy on almost every carcass,” Jones said.

So far this year, wildlife officials decided to forego necropsies of 626 manatees.

“Instead, our approach is guided by targeted carcass sampling that informs health investigations and management, in addition to monitoring through random sampling,” she said.

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