The Long Struggle To Save Florida's Manatees
Photography and Text by Jason Gulley
Florida is in the middle of a massive manatee die off. More than 1,100 manatees died in 2021, shattering annual fatality records for the iconic species and erasing more 10% of the estimated population.
The sharp uptick in deaths is due to the pollution-fueled collapse of seagrass beds on Florida’s east coast. Decades of nutrient pollution from fertilizer and sewage fueled algae blooms in Indian River Lagoon that choked out the seagrasses manatees eat.
As manatees migrated to the warm water discharge canals of electrical power plants around the lagoon last winter to escape from the cold ocean, they ran out of food.
In a grim first, hundreds of manatees starved to death. Because seagrass is unlikely to grow back until pollution is addressed and grasses replanted, biologist fear this wave of starvation is the first of many, as manatees again died at near record rates during the first three months of 2022.
Manatees were one of the first animals protected by the original Endangered Species Act. Following decades of population growth under federal protection, manatees were controversially downlisted to threatened in 2017.
The record die-offs during 2021 and 2022 underscore that many threats to the manatee population’s recovery remain unaddressed and their recovery is not guaranteed. Persistent threats to manatees include habitat loss due to development, pollution and loss of thermal refuges they need to survive winter.
Despite their chubby appearance, manatees have very little body fat and cannot survive in water colder than 20C. They must find warmer water in winter or they die. Because many natural warm water refuges are no longer accessible due to development, more than half of manatees survive winter in the warm water discharge canals of power plants.
Many of these power plants are nearing retirement and will be replaced with more environmentally friendly power plants that need less cooling water and generate less hot water for manatees. Because manatees learn where to go to survive winter from their mothers, biologists don’t know what will happen when the power plants are gone.
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