Florida Manatees Are Starving to Death Amid Fears They Could Be Wiped Out From Lagoon

West Indian manatees in Florida have been dying at an unprecedented rate over the past few months, with one expert worried that the animals could be wiped out from an important hub—the Indian River Lagoon—by the end of the year.

At least 432 manatees have died in the state so far this year, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). This stands in stark contrast to the 637 manatee deaths in all of 2020 and the annual average of 578 deaths between 2016 and 2020.

Many of the deaths have been in the northern Indian River Lagoon, which is a "central hub" for the marine mammals, Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, told the Tampa Bay Times.

Of the roughly 4,000 manatees found along Florida's east coast, most head to the area at some point in the year to feed, Rose said. In addition, as many as 1,000 settle there for the winter.

The FWC has yet to conduct a thorough examination of many of the dead animals, but the commission said "environmental conditions in portions of the Indian River Lagoon remain a concern."

Experts say diminishing seagrass levels in the lagoon—due, in large part, to algal blooms—have reduced the amount of food available to the manatees. Given that this is their primary food source, many may be starving to death.

"Not a blade of seagrass to be found," Leesa Souto, executive director at the Florida-based Marine Resources Council, told WFTV, while also noting the impact of the cold winter on the manatees. "We're looking at a possibility of extinction in the lagoon by the end of 2021."

An FWC veterinarian told the Florida Today newspaper that officials were coming across manatees that were "severely emaciated."

Rose told the Tampa Bay Times that many manatees had lost both fat and muscle: "It is a persistent, gnawing hunger, and it also weakens their ability to go about their normal physical activities. They probably made many forays in places trying to find food where it traditionally was. It is not a pleasant thing."

The FWC said it was investigating the "high level" of manatee mortalities along the central and south Atlantic coast of Florida. While preliminary information indicates that a "reduction in food availability" is a contributing factor, scientists are still trying to determine the exact causes of all the fatalities.

"With so many manatees, some of these deaths may not be caused by the same thing," Duane De Freese, executive director of the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program, told the Tampa Bay Times. He added, however, that there was "no question that this population of manatees is under significant stress because of the loss of seagrasses and appropriate forage foods."

Florida Reps. Charlie Crist and Stephanie Murphy have called on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to investigate whether the deaths constitute a "marine mammal unusual mortality event," which would free up additional resources.

In her request to the Fish and Wildlife Service, Murphy said West Indian manatees were one of Florida's "keystone species." Their population in the state was as low as 1,300 in the early 1990s, but has grown to around 6,500 thanks to conservation efforts—although their official status is still "threatened."

West Indian manatees—found throughout the Caribbean basin, including the southeastern United States, eastern Mexico, eastern Central America, northeastern South America and the Greater Antilles—are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

A manatee in Florida
A manatee swims beside a tour boat in the Crystal River Preserve State Park, Florida, on January 7, 2020. Paul Rovere/Getty Images