In 2021, there were 1,101 reported manatee deaths in Florida and that is nearly double the number in an average year. There are always the sad deaths that result from boat propellers and net entanglements, however this alarming spike has nothing to do with those hazards, although humans are still at fault. There are roughly 6,000 manatees in Florida, so last year, took a significant number from the population. It seems that they have run out of food.

Manatees need warm waters to survive

Manatees are aquatic mammals that live in the shallow, warm waters along the Florida coast and down into the Caribbean. They spend their days eating as much aquatic greenery as possible and can be happy in either salt water or fresh, although they need some fresh water to maintain proper health. These slow-moving giants need warm water to survive, and much time in waters below 60F will kill them. That’s why they flock to the warm, natural springs and the toasty water outlets of power plants.

If you love manatees, show the world with this beautiful Tervis tumbler.

chart explaining pollution effects

Man-made 'progress' and pollution threaten the manatee

Civilization has put some big stumbling blocks in the path of the manatee. Agricultural run-off is responsible for algae blooms in the coastal waters. The fertilizer in these run-offs make the algae that normally occurs in small numbers to explode. This thick mat of algae blocks light that the aquatic plants need to thrive, so the manatee’s main source of food is destroyed when the sea grass and other plants like mangroves die. A manatee needs over 100 pounds of greenery every day just to maintain its weight and the dead sea grass leaves them with nothing to eat. Manatees may look like they have plenty of weight to lose, however they aren’t fat at all. They have a giant stomach and digestive tract to process all of that seagrass and very little actual fat on their bodies. Without the seagrass, they starve to death quickly. Since manatees like warm water, they tend to congregate near power plant water outlets as well. If there is sea grass nearby, they graze it down to nothing and unfortunately, manatees would rather starve than go in search of more food in cooler waters. Power plant outlets also tend to raise the temperature of the water so much algae blooms are common nearby and that kills the seagrass too. It isn’t a good situation at all.

Here's a comprehensive book about the plight of the Florida manatee

herd of manatees resting

Science and industry are working to solve the manatee mortality problem

Scientists are working with the power companies and agricultural farmers to clean up the waterways and restore the seagrass, however this will be a long-term issue. In the meantime, all are working together to supplement food to help the manatees survive. This is a delicate operation, since they don’t want the wild manatees becoming dependent on humans for food. They are providing tons of romaine lettuce to the hungry animals and it is helping somewhat. However, don’t feed the manatees yourself. If you notice some in your area that appear to be looking for food, call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to report the animals. Someone will come out to assess the situation. Long-term, the waters need to be cleaned up so that the manatees and other aquatic animals have a healthy place to live. Warmer climate conditions also warm the waters and contribute to the problem as well.

What can you do to help save the manatee?

What can ordinary citizens do to help, especially if they live outside of the manatee’s native range? First of all, if you are visiting Florida, pick up after yourself and others. Keep the beaches and waterways as clean as possible. Dispose of fishing lines and nets responsibly. Boat the waterways carefully and use prop guards to prevent injury to the manatees. Spring breakers, please don’t harass or try to ride a manatee. While they are peaceful animals, stressing them just leaves them more vulnerable. If you are going to Florida for spring break, take a day away from partying and volunteer to help clean up wetlands and beaches. There is also Save the Manatee, which is a legitimate 501 non-profit started in 1981 by singer Jimmy Buffett and the then governor of Florida, Bob Graham. It is devoted to repairing the environment and raising awareness about the fragile ecosystem and the threatened manatee. You can even ‘adopt’ a specific manatee through this program and receive a biography and picture of your manatee along with a calendar, newsletter and other goodies. Proceeds go to education and conservation.

mother manatee and calf

Treat our planet with respect

We should all be aware that everything we do has an impact on the ecosystem. Wildlife habitat is changing and shrinking and the animals are running out of food and living space. We can help by reducing our chemical usage and keeping our neighborhood clean. When traveling, don't hesitate to pick up trash and dispose of it properly. Even if it isn't your trash, it ultimately affects this planet, and so far, it is the only planet we have, so treat it kindly.

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