Manatee Deaths in Florida Increase in 2020, and Experts Aren’t Sure Why

July 20, 2020by Abigail Brashear, The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla. (TNS)
Manatees find refuge in the warm waters of Blue Spring located at Blue Spring State Park in Volusia County, Florida, in a 2015 file image. (Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Manatee deaths are on the rise in Florida.

Coronavirus isn’t likely at fault, but it has kept officials from performing as many necropsies as normal on the dead animals. As a result, experts from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission aren’t sure what’s causing many of the gentle creatures to die.

While 606 manatee deaths were reported in Florida in 2019, there have already been 355 deaths during the first six months of 2020. Out of those, 103 have occurred since May, and 18 manatees have died in Volusia County this year. There have also been two manatee deaths in Flagler County.

The numbers statewide suggest 2020 is on pace to reach the manatee death count in 2018 and 2013, when Florida recorded more than 800 deaths. Both those years, algae blooms were suspected as playing a role in some deaths. Available state data does not indicate any role algae blooms have played in 2020 deaths.

Cora Bercham, director of multimedia and manatee research assistant with the Save the Manatees club, said the spike in cases is worrying. A main suspected cause of the deaths is collisions with boats and their engine propellers.

Last year saw a record 136 manatee deaths caused by watercraft collisions. So far this year, there have been 36 reported watercraft collisions with the mammals — not including 126 manatees identified dead in the water and not recovered, as well as 43 manatees with an undetermined cause of death.

In 2019, there were 129 unrecovered manatees the entire year, and 92 manatees with an undetermined cause of death. In 2018, there were 105 unrecovered manatees, and 110 with an undetermined cause of death.

“It’s very concerning to see this uptick,” Bercham said. “Every dead manatee that is found is (usually) brought in for a necropsy. It’s very important that we know how they died.”

So why weren’t those necropsies completed? That’s where the coronavirus pandemic comes into play.

Martina De Wit, a veterinarian with FWC, said that while many agency employees have been deemed essential workers by Gov. Ron DeSantis during the pandemic, the FWC has kept as many employees as possible working from home. That has decreased the number of manatee necropsies.

“Sometimes you’re shoulder to shoulder trying to lift up manatees and we just wanted to consider our staff’s safety,” De Wit said. “We continued to respond to manatees that were in need of rescue. We were considered essential for only some of our work.”

The FWC started completing necropsies again on July 2 on a case-by-case basis, depending on whether or not circumstances provided enough safety for researchers. But that situation left a large gap — two months — in data.

The big question, De Wit said, is how many manatees died from watercraft collisions during the gap. There’s not an easy way to track the level of boat activity, but both De Wit and Bercham said all signs point to a busy summer for boating.

Because of the coronavirus, many people are turning to the water for recreation that includes social distancing. But when manatees have collided with boats and their bodies could not be retrieved, specific data is lost. De Wit also said the mammals decompose quickly in the summertime, which makes determining why they died more vexing.

“It will be hard to tell what was going on there obviously,” she said. “Over the years, we’ve collected such an immense amount of data to where we know boat collisions are a major concern for manatees.”

Manatees are still considered a threatened species, and many of them show scars from boat propellers. Their overall population has rebounded significantly since the early 1970s.

Complying with the speed zones in the water is essential to protecting manatees, Bercham said. Following speed limits in areas manatees are known to frequent will drastically decrease the number of watercraft collisions.

“It’s so important to obey the speed zones,” Bercham said. “But we do have a lot of boaters out there who are also reporting sick or injured manatees, and they can really make the difference.”

To report a sick, injured or dead manatee, contact the FWC hotline at 888-404-3922, and press *7 to speak with an operator.

———

©2020 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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