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What’s Killing Florida’s Manatees?



The year 2021 has been tough on Florida’s manatees, with approximately 1,000 mortalities.

One thousand manatee mortalities may not sound like all that much, but the “sea cow” is endangered and these losses are bitter. It’s enough, in fact, to refer to what’s happened to Florida’s manatees this year as an Unusual Mortality Event, or UME. What caused it? It starts with poor water quality in a part of Florida called the Indian River Lagoon. This has led to harmful algal blooms and the loss of the seagrass that manatees must eat to survive.

Rescue efforts are and have been underway. Since January 1, 2021, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and partners (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [USFWS], in cooperation with Florida Power & Light Company (FPL) have rescued over 130 manatees statewide.

What’s being done?

Obviously, Step One is to try to feed the starving manatees. Staff have just been approved to conduct a short-term feeding trial, referred to by many as supplemental feeding. The goals of this limited, small-scale feeding trial are two-fold: 1) to reduce manatee mortality; and 2) to reduce the number of animals in need of rescue, allowing the limited space in permitted critical care facilities to remain open for animals needing rehabilitation for other reasons.

The scientists at USFWS and the FWC are cautious in their optimism. “Because this trial effort is a management action that has not been tried before, we do not know how many manatees will visit the site or how much vegetation individual manatees will consume. The goal of this action is to reduce manatee mortality. It will not eliminate it,” states the FWC. They’re well aware that supplemental feeding can cause problems down the line, but are hoping that this will save enough manatees to phase it out later.

“We understand the importance of a timely response. Our agencies and Unified Command partners carefully considered all aspects of a short-term feeding trial,” said Shannon Estenoz, Department of the Interior Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks. “It is critical we help manatees in the short term with actions that are compatible with their long-term well-being and resilience.”

Sadly, it’s not over. The poor water quality conditions that began this UME are still in effect, and more manatee deaths are anticipated.

What you can do to help

  • Call FWC’s Wildlife Alert toll-free number: 1-888-404-FWCC (1-888-404-3922) or #FWC or *FWC on a cellphone if you see a sick, injured, dead or tagged manatee.
  • Boaters will find them easier to spot if they wear polarized sunglasses and keep a lookout for signs of manatees such as the circular “footprints” they trace on the top of the water or their snouts sticking up out the water.
  • Look, but don’t touch manatees. Keep your distance when boating, even if you are steering a canoe, kayak or paddleboard. Be a good role model for others so that they learn how to watch and enjoy manatees without disturbing the animals.
  • The plate you buy matters; support FWC manatee rescues and research. Next time you renew your tag, consider a “Save the Manatee” license plate!
  • Show your support for manatee conservation by proudly displaying a manatee decal. These high-quality stickers feature original artwork and are available from your local Tax Collector’s office with a $5 donation.


  1. AskMe2

    December 21, 2021 at 12:10 pm

    As long as you have greedy, corrupt republican politicians like Florida’s governor DeSantis in office, the ecosystems and life in general will decline!

  2. Al C

    December 17, 2021 at 10:53 am

    A friend of mine is a waste water tech on the St Johns river. The water that is treated and sent back out is warmer causing these creatures to stay longer as well. They now have gates to prevent them from migrating closer to the cleaned water but the lack of food is a bigger problem.

  3. Jerry Bozeman

    December 9, 2021 at 12:38 pm

    I’ve been on the St. Johns for 69 years and never has there been a loss of eel grass like there is currently. I have scouted the river from Buckman to Astor and no grass is to be found. Those of us that live on the river watched the state spray the edges of the river and lakes around 2016/17 to kill hyacinths and other aquatic “weeds”. Shortly thereafter all the grass dies, followed by the death of the manatees, carp and other species. Not to mention the thousands of ducks and coots that used to transverse the river in the winter months. Haven’t seen a coot in 5 years now. It would be a very hard sell to convince the residents up and down the river and Lake George that the excess spraying by the state did not contribute to, if not fully cause the loss of the eel grass which so many species are dependent on. Someone is killing our river and should be held accountable.


      December 10, 2021 at 4:28 pm

      FWS needs to find out what is happening in all areas of the water ways to determine the best course of action. It is not going to be easy, but FWS could maybe reseed areas to grow the eel grass to see if that may cause a change in ability of the Manatees and other species to eat.

      • Robert Bosheit

        December 11, 2021 at 9:04 am

        I recall hearing about a “leech pond” for toxic industrial waste somehow making its way into a few bodies of water as well as ground water in FL. Although it appears to be on the opposite side of the state, never know where it may have been diverted.

        Not to mention all the pesticides and as Jerry brought up, herbicides. People using either have decimated the pollinator population to the point of it possibly taking decades to return to 80s levels…all because they don’t want anything but grass in their lawn, or god forbid a beehive.

        It takes longer & requires manual labor (oh dear! Not work!) but if a waterway is clogged/dammed up by foliage, invasive or not, hire people to collect it by hand.
        I’m sure low-risk prisoners would be happy to spend the day doing that rather than spend the day inside. To keep costs down there’s always the option of having people sentenced to community service pull what needs to go.

        It seems safe to say that the blame falls on the various state bureaucracies for either participating in or allowing such actions.

        Locally there’s a invasive asian species (as usual) of fresh water mollusk problem resulting in completely plugged drainways along with killing the non-invasive types.

        I believe the state tried the “safe poison” route in a single body decades ago & learned the hard way you have to just destroy the problem by hand or you will harm just about everything but the target species.

  4. David

    December 9, 2021 at 10:56 am

    I wonder if it is the developers, the thousands of motor boats that travel waters there, the waste from industry, ships going to and from the port facilities and or waste/byproducts from the Space Center working together that are polluting the waters of the lagoon? Something needs to be done and done soon. The manatees are just the tip of the iceberg as the people living there (and the tourists that are the major business for the area) are also being exposed to whatever is killing the manatees’ food. Long term, this could destroy the entire area. It appears to be another case of humans causing the destruction of the ecosystem for a short term profit and with no regard to what our children and grandchildren must face.

    • Lawrence Greenberg

      December 9, 2021 at 1:45 pm

      From your mouth to God’s ears, as the saying goes. Someone needs to listen to your words of wisdom.

  5. Peter Borghese

    December 9, 2021 at 9:48 am

    As long as developers rule Florida and unrestricted growth is tolerated, water quality will continue to degrade.

    Although big sugar has some responsibility, the politicans who allow developers unrestrained growth are the primary offenders.


    December 9, 2021 at 9:43 am


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