In Less Than 2 Months, 154 Florida Manatees Perish, One-Third from Cold Stress
Washington, DC — The first two months of 2018 have been especially deadly for Florida manatees, according to figures posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). With more than 150 lost in just this year’s first seven weeks, Florida is on a path to set a new annual record for manatee mortality.
The latest reports from the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) covering the period from January 1st through February 23rd show –
- A total 154 deaths in seven weeks. That mortality rate sets a pace to easily eclipse the 2017 total of 538 manatee deaths and could surpass the all-time record die-off of 803 manatees in 2013;
- The biggest factor in this spike is 51 deaths from cold stress in 2018; nearly double the 27 cold stress deaths throughout all of 2017and more than double the five-year average for this cause. Back in 2010, a disastrously severe cold spell caused 282 manatees to perish; and
- In nearly a third of cases (51), the cause of death could not be determined due to advanced decomposition of the carcass or the carcass could not be recovered.
Exposure to water temperatures below 68 degrees Fahrenheit for long periods induces manatees to suffer cold-stress syndrome, which triggers weight loss, internal fat loss, dehydration, and other problems. Juvenile manatees are especially vulnerable to death from cold stress.
“Florida’s manatees are one big freeze away from an ecological disaster and need more, not less, protection,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service reduced safeguards for the West Indian manatee last year by downgrading its status from endangered down to threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. “Manatees may join polar bears as one of the first iconic victims of extinction in the wild from climate change.”
Notably, 2018 has yet to record a red-tide caused manatee death but that may soon change. In 2017, FWCC identified 63 manatee deaths where red tide events were the positive or suspected cause. That was a substantial increase from the 53 such deaths recorded in 2016, the 15 in 2015 and the 4 in 2014.
Those numbers pale behind the record 276 red tide-related manatee deaths in 2013. Already this year, scientists are finding disturbing levels of algae in locations such as Indian River Lagoon, the site of devastating algal bloom outbreaks in 2016. Red tides and algal blooms poison both manatees and their food supplies.
“As the weather warms, surviving manatees may suffer toxic shock and starvation induced by Florida’s declining water quality,” added Ruch. “Florida must start doing a better job of reducing water pollution and protecting vital warm springs habitat if it expects to restore healthy manatee populations.”