It is Manatee Awareness Month, and we are focusing this issue on Florida's ongoing manatee crisis. We explain the backstory and proposed solutions, with help from Florida photographer Jason Gulley.

Florida manatee deaths have officially topped 1,000, a new single-year record. While manatee deaths have recently slowed, Max Chesnes reports that experts are bracing for a deadly winter. 

Backstory: The previous record for annual manatee deaths was set in 2013 when 830 manatees died after exposure to toxic red tide. Now, sea cows are dying in new record numbers because the food source they depend on—seagrass—is in short supply thanks to worsening water quality (think fertilizer runoff and other pollutants that feed algae blooms). More than half of seagrasses have disappeared in the Indian River Lagoon, a key habitat for Florida manatees seeking warm waters during winter. Power plant decommissions have resulted in a loss of warm water habitats for the manatee to retreat.

Seagrass die-off has led to the first ever unusual mortality event for manatees related to starvation. But starvation isn’t the only threat facing manatees. Boat strikes and marine debris are also part of the problem. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recently found that only 4% of adult manatees have never been injured by a boat or watercraft strike. Instead, most manatees show evidence of being struck multiple times in their lives.

Disclaimer: The following photos are graphic in nature and show dead manatees.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists flip a manatee corpse over to look for scars and injuries on its back during a field exam on Merritt Island. Photo by Jason Gulley
Animal care staff at ZooTampa’s David A. Strazz Manatee Critical Care Center bottle feed an orphaned manatee. Orphaned manatee calves require extensive care and are bottle fed every four hours. ZooTampa is one of two facilities in Florida which can care for infant manatees. Photo by Jason Gulley
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists examine the corpses of manatees in Indian River Lagoon in March. In most years, these manatees would have been transported to a lab for a necropsy to determine the cause of death. A combination of COVID-19 operational restrictions and the shear volume of dead manatees have resulted in about 60% of dead manatees not being necropsied this year. Photo by Jason Gulley

Downlisting the manatee’s protection status was opposed by experts in 2017. “The experts worried the proposal was based on an incomplete analysis of the data available at the time and effectively disregarded significant die-offs in 2010 and 2013. They also pointed out there was no discussion of climate change or how factors like sea-level rise, hurricanes and warmer waters—where harmful algae blooms flourish—might affect manatee habitat,” reported Amy Green for Inside Climate News. Still, the manatee was downlisted from endangered to threatened by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. However, new proposed legislation, the Manatee Protection Act, would designate Florida’s manatee as endangered.  

The Solutions: Improving water quality is key to saving Florida manatees, as well as continuing to curb manatee death by boat with speed limits and boat-free zones. “Almost two and a half million pounds of nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural chemicals, lawn fertilizers and leaky septic tanks flow into the lagoon each year. As the water quality has deteriorated, some manatees have been wintering in waters warmed by discharges from power plants along Florida’s Atlantic coast,” reported National Geographic earlier this year.

Wildlife authorities are considering a controversial idea: supplemental feeding in the Indian River Lagoon. It’s not ideal, as supplemental feeding can change manatees’ behavior, but authorities may still test feeding wild manatees natural or agriculture-based vegetation before they become malnourished this winter. Meanwhile, state and federal scientists are looking into “ways to restore, enhance and create warm-water manatee habitats along Florida’s Gulf Coast,” reports Naples Daily News.

Jason Gulley, Contributing Photographer
Jason Gulley is a science and environment photojournalist and an associate professor of geology at the University of South Florida. Jason’s photography overlaps with his research on water and climate change topics. Jason is a cave and technical scuba diver and instructor, and his work has been featured by a variety of national and international publications, including National Geographic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, WIRED and The Wall Street Journal. He lives in Tampa with his girlfriend, Pati, and their rescue dogs, Peacock and Olsen.