The manatee population off the coast of Florida was dying at an “unprecedented rate,” and officials say this could be the result of their ecosystem collapsing.
Preliminary state data between Jan. 1, 2021 and Aug. 13, 2021 shows at least 912 deaths out of the 578 manatee deaths on average each year between 2015 and 2020. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said the rate of manatee mortality was due to famine, particularly in the Indian River Lagoon in Florida, where lack of seagrass led to malnutrition in manatees.
Official reports confirm that around 40% of them were “severely wasted” and below expected body weight.
The manatees were believed to have perished from a disaster almost entirely caused by man; of water pollution for a decade by agriculture and real estate development which “pushed their ecosystem to the brink”.
2021: Deadliest Year for Florida Manatees
(Photo: Photo from wikimedia.org)
According to Mike Walsh, co-director of aquatic animal health at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Florida, the Indian River Lagoon where manatees thrive “was decimated by overgrazing and algal blooms that block sunlight. “
Instead, thousands of manatees seeking refuge in the warm waters have ended up in the lukewarm landfill of coastal power plants.
“When we installed power plants, we complicated it because we provided hot springs that aren’t necessarily in the best places (for the manatees),” Walsh said.
Manatee keepers say the animals have suffered for months in a very inhumane way, as many have lost almost half their weight.
“They ate their bodies from the inside out, trying to stay alive because there is no food. I don’t know if it hurts them because I’m not a manatee but I can tell you that if you haven’t eaten for a week or two, there is pain, ”said Jon Peterson, who saves wildlife at SeaWorld Orlando.
Part of the species‘ population may have survived, but its health is deteriorating day by day and will likely affect its reproduction as well.
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The famine of the herbaria of human development
Manatees primarily depend on seagrass beds for food, but seagrass beds in the Indian River Lagoon having been suffocated due to coastal development and agricultural runoff.
“Basically the whole system has been declared corrupted because the nutrient loads are too high,” said Charles Jacoby, environmental scientist with the St. John’s River Water Management District.
These nutrient loads have fueled intense algal blooms that block sunlight and kill seagrass, ushering in a devastating decade for the lagoon.
Monica Ross, a researcher at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, said they are now monitoring manatees and how to better protect them in the coming winters.
Although repairing the Indian River Lagoon ecosystem can cost $ 5 billion and take 20 years, Duane De Freese, executive director of the Indian River Lagoon Estuary National Program, said that ‘they were on a “well-headed and running start”.
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