A record number of manatees have already died in Florida waters – at least 841 since the start of the year.
Statistics from the state’s Fish and Wildlife Commission show that the dead manatees make up about ten per cent of the total population, which stands at around 8,810 animals.
With five months left of the year, the previous record number of deaths have already been surpassed. In 2013, 830 manatees died during the whole year. The high death count that year was caused by an outbreak of toxic red tide, a harmful algal bloom.
Advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife told Axios that the shocking number of deaths occurred this year because manatees migrated towards warmer coastal waters early this winter because of the cold.
When they got to these coastal waters, pollution and algal blooms had destroyed seagrass beds, leading the manatees to starve.
Elizabeth Fleming, senior Florida representative at Defenders of Wildlife, said: “This catastrophic die-off foreshadows the manatee’s future unless we take immediate and effective action.”
"They’re starving to death. Ongoing water pollution has wiped out large areas of seagrass, a major food source. This situation cannot continue,” she added.
“Unprecedented manatee mortality due to starvation was documented on the Atlantic coast this past winter and spring,” Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute said on Friday. “Most deaths occurred during the colder months when manatees migrated to and through the Indian River Lagoon, where the majority of seagrass has died off.”
“The long-term health effects of prolonged starvation in manatees that survived the Atlantic event to this point are not yet known,” the Fish and Wildlife Commission said in a statement.
Collisions with boats have caused at least 63 manatee deaths this year. The animal went from being classified as “endangered” to “threatened” by the federal government in 2017, with advocates now arguing that the classification should return to “endangered”.
Florida Republican Rep Vern Buchanan last month called for the US Fish and Wildlife Service to upgrade the classification from “threatened” to “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act.
“Manatees are beloved, iconic mammals in Florida,” Mr Buchanan said in a statement. “We should provide these gentle giants with the highest levels of federal protection.”
“When a species becomes extinct, it is lost forever,” he added. “We cannot afford to let that happen to these iconic residents of Florida and the state’s official marine mammal.”