Mass manatee deaths recorded in Florida, USA


Florida has seen an alarming increase in manatee deaths in 2021, with 674 cases reported between January and mid-April.

The baby manatee Lativa was so sick that her caregivers had to put a floating device on her so she could rise to the surface to breathe.

Others are not so lucky: delicate marine mammals are dying at an unprecedented rate in Florida, and there are not enough “beds” in animal hospitals to deal with the crisis.

When two-year-old Lativa was rescued earlier this month, she was suffering from severe exposure to brevetoxins, powerful neurotoxins produced by red tides or algae blooms that have polluted some bodies of water in the American state.

“She was found on the shore, but she didn’t come ashore … she was completely unresponsive,” says Molly Lippincott, animal care manager at Lowry Park Zoo.

Today, the manatee is breathing on its own, but is still under close observation in intensive care next to Bellisima, who was found emaciated and severely injured after being hit by a boat.

Red tides caused by human use of fertilizers, loss of food sources in their natural habitat and impacts caused by boat collisions are some of the leading causes of manatee deaths in Florida.

And this year, the death toll is skyrocketing.

From Jan. 1 to mid-April, 674 dead manatees were found in Florida waters, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

That’s nearly three times the number of manatee deaths reported during the same period in each of the previous five years.

“We just have a lot more environmental problems because so many people live here now,” Lippincott said.

When Lativas and Bellisima’s conditions improve, they will be moved to recovery pools, where about 20 manatees are fed lettuce and cared for until they can return to their natural habitat.

There are five manatee hospitals in the Sunshine State. The hospital in Tampa is one of the largest, with three intensive care tanks. The bottom of the tanks can be raised to care for the animals.

But the shocking death rate this year has pushed these facilities to their limits.

Veterinarians “are trying to figure out how to shuffle manatees to free up the intensive care facilities,” says Cynthia Stringfield, senior vice president of animal health, conservation and education at the ZooTampa Zoo.

“But now you have to juggle trying to find a place for everyone.”

Manatees, distant relatives of elephants, are playful warm-water giants that feed on seagrasses and live in shallow water because they need to surface frequently to breathe.

Usually the increase in manatee deaths is attributed to collisions with boats and jet skis that pass through their habitat.

“When a manatee gets up to take a breath, it’s usually vulnerable and gets hit by a boat,” explains Lippincott.

In the zoo pools, many of the animals are scarred – jagged lines when a manatee hit the keel of a boat, or parallel stripes when it was hit by an outboard motor.

“They do move very slowly. They’re moving at about five miles an hour, so they don’t have time to run away from boats. We need people to slow down when they’re in shallow water,” Lippincott says.

Florida doesn’t require a license to operate a boat. Users simply have to take a training course, which doesn’t include much information about local wildlife.

And tourists renting boats often don’t know that manatees even exist, even though there are 7,000 of them in the state.

An Unusual Case of Mortality

The large number of manatee deaths this year on Florida’s eastern shores appears to be due in part to the disappearance of seagrass, which is not getting enough sunlight because of algae blooms caused by fertilizer use and excessive sewage.

Last month, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission classified this dire situation as an “unusual case of mortality,” a rare move that unlocks federal funds for an investigation.

Many of these manatees, sometimes called “sea cows,” have been found suffering from malnutrition along Florida’s central and south Atlantic coast.

Complicating the situation is that a sewage tank breach at the site of a former Florida Gulf Coast fertilizer plant has released thousands of gallons of contaminated water into Tampa Bay.

“We haven’t seen the effects of that yet, but we’re concerned that it could become a new problem,” Stringfield says.

In May 2017, a few months after Donald Trump took office as president of the United States, federal authorities reclassified manatees, n