Changing water temperatures, red tide contributing to manatee deaths

The loss of seagrass is causing manatees to starve to death

TAMPA, Fla. - November kicks off Manatee Awareness Month, and Florida is on a mission to make the manatee an endangered species after the deadliest year on record for the marine mammal.

So far, in 2021, 15 percent (nearly 1,000) of the population has died in part due to changing water temperatures and red tide blooms.

FOX 13 reports the die-off was declared an unusual mortality event after the first six months of the year was above the previous record of 830 manatee deaths in all of 2013. 

Environmental engineer Tracy Fanara joined FOX Weather on Tuesday morning and explained that the loss of seagrass in the area is starving manatees.

"This is a decade in the making," she said. "There was a cold snap back in 2011 or 2010 that caused a seagrass die-off. And ever since then, there's been changes in the Indian River Lagoon, which is a really important waterway for manatees."

Fanara said algae started to form and seagrass had less and less time every year to bounce back and provide food for the manatees.

"Seagrass is the manatee's favorite food, so basically, they're starving at this point," she said.

Most of the manatee deaths were reported on the eastern side of Florida, but more deaths were reported on the state's western side because of the red tides.

What is a Red Tide?

"The reason why they're affected by that Florida red tide is because the toxin attaches to epiphytes on the seagrass. The manatees then eat the seagrass, and that's how they're impacted."

According to FOX 13, manatees had been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1973 where they were listed as endangered until 2017.

That year they were downgraded to a "threatened species."

Conservation efforts helped raise the manatee population to 6,000 in 2017, but in 2019 only 5,733 remained.

In Florida, new legislation has been introduced that would upgrade the manatee from "threatened" back to "endangered."

That declaration would allow federal resources to be used to increase the manatee population.