WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — They are gentle giants of Florida's ecosystem. The manatee has always been a poster for promoting tourism yet each year protecting this threatened species grows more problematic.
"I'm so distressed so many are dying," said Dr. Edith Widder, co-founder of ORCA, Ocean Research and Conservation Association.
She's heartbroken but not surprised manatees are in the middle of a die-off on Florida's East Coast.
Widder and her researchers have been collecting samples from the St Lucie River. They're plotting pollution maps to find out what's at the bottom and where it came from.
"We've been measuring as much as 10-feet deep muck," said Widder. "Seagrass can't grow in it. Animals can barely live in it."
Manatees survive off seagrass and this year researchers are noticing less of it. The connection between less seagrass and more muck has been a contributing factor in the growing number of manatee mortalities this year.
Six hundred thirty-seven manatees died across the state of Florida last year alone. Already as of this writing, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has recorded 613 manatee deaths just in the first four months of 2021.
The numbers are growing daily. At this rate, six manatees are dying each day this year. It's so bad it has created an unusual mortality event. That means state and federal investigators are trying to identify the cause.
"If manatees are dying in these numbers, just think of everything else that has gone down before them in terms of all critters that are dependent on seagrass," said Dr. James Powell.
Powell heads the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and has studied manatees for over 40 years. He confirmed many are starving to death this year because of a lack of seagrass. Deaths are happening up and down Florida's East Coast, but Powell said ground zero is in Brevard County.
"The difficulty of what we need to do for this recovery to continue is very daunting and troubling," said Powell.
It is troubling because there is no easy solution. Seagrass depletion means something far worse is happening.
"That's the problem," said Widden. "The water quality issues are from a whole multitude of different sources."
Researchers agree, a cascade of pollution that filters from backyards, sewers, algae blooms and discharges are slowly suffocating the cleanliness of our ecosystem.
Stopping it at its source, they said, is key and education is the only way to get there.
If manatees are an indicator of the health of our environment and they're dying daily in near-record numbers, perhaps it is time to start listening to them.
"We've had these situations around the planet of die-offs of nature and nature is about us. We're part of nature," said Widden. "If we don't start reacting to these things trying to figure out what we need to do to keep our life support systems healthy, we're going to be in trouble too."
The FWC is the lead response agency investigating the rise in manatee deaths. They coordinate with federal counterparts and partners around the state.
Gil McRae, director of the FWC's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, made a recent presentation to the Florida Senate, providing an update on the issue.
Click here for a link to the FWC's response page, which includes links to mortality pages.