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Florida’s manatees are dying at staggering rates, with 738 dead so far this year.
Compare that to 2020’s total of 637 lost. The death toll since January is now fast approaching the previous annual record for manatee deaths which was 804 in all of 2018, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
And we’re only halfway through the year.
The tragic trend is owed to increasing pollution in Florida waters, from sites such as Manatee County’s Piney Point, an abandoned fertilizer factory that was recently investigated for leaking 215 million gallons of contaminated water into Tampa Bay.
Algae blooms encouraged by chemical and waste runoff have been blocking out sunlight, so that seagrass, the manatee’s main meal, has no room to grow. This has led to the loss of tens of thousands of acres of seagrass. Adding to that, the overall toxicity associated with wastewater has made for a deadly environment.
Marine pathologist Martine de Wit has observed “severe emaciation” among hundreds of the aquatic beasts.
“This event is not over yet,” de Wit told the Tampa Bay Times last week, noting that many manatees observed this past winter were as much as 40% underweight. “We are still picking up occasional cases with the effects of starvation.”
The US government has now declared the mass die-off an “unusual mortality event,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which will afford rescue teams more resources to respond to the disaster.
Florida conservationists have now begun the task of rescuing manatees to be rehabilitated and later released into cleaner waters. So far, 89 have been brought into captivity for monitoring.
“If you can just sit still in a tank and get fed all the lettuce you need, and you still take months [to recuperate] … I think that’s telling,” said de Wit.
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