A late-year arctic blast that impacted the Sunshine State helped propel manatees' 2022 death toll to at least 800, continuing a streak of what has been identified as an unusual mortality event by biologists.
Data released by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Thursday showed the yearly death count was roughly 8 percent higher than average but sharply lower than the record 1,100 deaths reported in 2021.
Biologists previously blamed a giant seagrass die-off for causing starvation among the endangered species, mostly along Florida's east coast.
Following the record year, state and federal agencies established a supplemental feeding program in a Central Florida lagoon, where many of the giant sea cows migrate to during the winter.
Biologists distributed more than 200,000 pounds of leafy greens in the Indian River Lagoon with the intent of doubling the amount during the current cold season.
A record-breaking arctic cold snap over the holiday season only compounded issues, dropping temperatures of some waterways to below 68 degrees and increasing the potential for cold-stress syndrome in warm-blooded mammals.
"With the cold impacting the entire state, it was definitely a statewide uptick," said Andy Garrett, a mammal stranding coordinator at the FWC. "We don't like to say this in this business, but before Christmas, we were quiet. And it picked up from there."
In addition to the cold, the yearly report showed boating and birthing led the way for known causes of deaths in 34 counties across the state.
Animals found alive but suffering from malnourishment or injuries are being treated and rehabilitated at facilities from Ohio to Puerto Rico.
"We have the 79 in-house right now and over 20 that are going to be going back to being returned to the wild in the next two months by the end of February. So that's going to put us right there in a better place," said Teresa Calleson, a biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The USFWS believes the facilities could handle an additional 40 to 50 manatees and are prepared to open two contingency sites if an unexpected uptick in rescues happens.
The FWC said manatees are taking advantage of its feeding site in Brevard County, and biologists have observed a return of some of the animal's natural feeding grasses in critical waterways.
"I want to caution people. We're not going to fix the seagrass situation in the Indian River Lagoon overnight or over the course of the year. It's going to take several years for those seagrasses to come back. And that is dependent on a lot of things that are largely out of our control," said Tom Reinert, FWC manatee program spokesperson.
The FWC estimates there are only around 7,500 manatees left in Sunshine State, and if boaters see an animal in distress, they should inform the agency about the sighting by calling 888-404-3922.