Manatees in Florida are dying at record rates, with more than 700 of the creatures found dead this year already.
On the current trajectory, the 749 fatalities for the first five months of 2021 are due to beat a record of 804 in 2018, according to figures from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).
It follows years of rising water pollution in Florida, with algae reducing the amount of food available for manatees, who live off seagrass.
The plant is dying off, or blocked from growing by algae blooms, in part thanks to toxic wastewater runoff from an abandoned fertiliser plant in Piney Point. As is sewage an issue.
Campaigners warn that manatees are starving to death, with fatalities already above the 637 figure for all of 2020, and approaching 2018’s figure.
“This event is not over yet. We are still picking up occasional cases with the effects of starvation,” Martine de Wit, of Florida’s marine mammal pathology lab, told the Tampa Bay Times.
“These animals started to eat, but their bodies could not resolve those effects of prolonged starvation,” said Ms de Wit, adding that many of Florida’s manatees were found to be underweight.
It follows a report from the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) in March that pesticides were found in over 55 per cent of manatees tested, many of which were from the polluted Indian River Lagoon.
An algae bloom in the lagoon in 2011 reduced levels of seagrass by 47,000 acres, or about 60 per cent, and has not regrown fully, Ms de Witt told Florida Today.
“Our beloved chubby sea cows are dodging boat strikes, reeling from red tide [algae] and starving in the Indian River Lagoon because of water pollution,” Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director for the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), added to the Tampa Bay Times.
“It’s heartbreaking to add chronic glyphosate exposure to the list of factors threatening manatee survival”.
Federal officials recently called the situation a “unusual mortality event”, freeing up resources to for state officials respond.
But two years ago, manatees were downgraded from “endangered” to “threatened” by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), reducing funding for conservation and protection from water pollution.
Of the FWS’s downgrading, former Florida governor Bob Graham recent argued in an op-ed for Tampa Bay Times, that it “should admit its mistake and re-list the manatee as an endangered species”.
“They listened to anti-manatee groups and prematurely took manatees off the endangered species list over the objections of scientists and thousands of Americans who understood that the manatees’ future was not secure but in fact could get much worse,” Mr Graham, a Democrat, wrote.
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