Home Biologist Winter could bring more deaths to an already tense manatee population

Winter could bring more deaths to an already tense manatee population


Wildlife biologists fear another cold and harsh winter for starving Florida sea cows.

They worry when Florida’s waters cooler and seagrass beds recede in a few months, manatees will die again in the hundreds the day after a year in which 890 sea cows have already perished, mostly from starvation.

So they’re scrambling to figure out how to spend $ 8 million in the state’s manatee salvage money and to streamline the permits that rehab facilities like SeaWorld are needed to save more sea cows.

“We are working to expand the facility and we are doing it in case we have more mortality this winter,” said Larry Williams, manatee biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. “There is a very high number of abandoned calves. So in preparation for next winter, we are working with groups to grow and make sure they have the permits.

Manatees are crashing in 2021 like never before. Already, deaths have broken the 2013 record of 830 and more than doubled the five-year average of 396 deaths, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. And while the death rate appears to have declined in recent weeks, winter is yet to come, with countless emaciated and debilitated survivors and orphans in general.

Stress from cold water has killed an average of 42 manatees (11% of all deaths) over the past five years. of manatee deaths. But harsh winters can kill many more.

The story continues below the graph:

Read more: Hungry manatees overwhelm Florida rescuers

FWC met in Bonita Springs on Wednesday to discuss the federally declared unusual fatality event that left 316 sea cows in the Brevard stretch of the Indian River Lagoon, or 36% of the total fatalities This year. The death toll became so severe that in April, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared the death an unusual mortality event, freeing up federal funds and other resources for the response.

Yet, little more is known to biologists than manatees starve to death due to the loss of seagrass that has occurred over the decades, caused by polluted runoff, fertilizers, septic tanks that have occurred. leaks and sewage spills, especially in the lagoon.

“What is hindering this investigation is the hot summer,” Martine deWit, the FWC veterinarian who heads the agency’s autopsy lab in St. Petersburg, said late last month. “They’re breaking down so quickly, so we’re not even shipping across the state yet.” (An autopsy is an examination on a dead animal).

To add to the problem, in mid-July the FWC cold room that contains manatee carcasses and remains at the St. Petersburg laboratory broke down, complicating the logistics of examinations. The expensive new condenser they need won’t be ready until the end of this month.

“So we are currently doing on-the-fly autopsies, with the use of dumpsters and landfills, and additional complicated logistics,” deWit said via email.

While manatees appear to be doing better recently, deWit said the long-term impacts of malnutrition could lead to future reproductive and other health issues, especially this winter. “Obviously, we can expect sublethal effects,” said deWit.

Read more: Florida, federal government brace for another deadly winter for manatees

Gil McRae, FWC’s director of personnel, told commissioners the problem went beyond the recent disappearance.

“At the end of the day, it’s not a manatee problem,” McRae said. “It’s more complicated than that. And we want to make sure the commissioners understand the sense of urgency.”

The legislature this year approved $ 8 million to restore manatee access to springs and improve habitat in other manatee hotspots. The agency has 18 months to figure out how to spend the money and five years to complete the projects. FWC staff are in the process of identifying and prioritizing these restoration projects.

FWC plans to complete seven eelgrass restoration projects in the tributaries of the lagoon this year. Staff are also carrying out restoration of aquatic vegetation near the springs of the St. Johns River and a restoration project at Blue Spring State Park.

With a population close to 8,900, some at Wednesday’s meeting said the overall manatee story should be positive and should focus on how the animal has recovered over the past three decades.

The annual winter counts that 20 years ago there were typically only a few thousand manatees in recent years, exceeding 6,000 sea cows.

Advocates of boating in the lagoon region have long argued that the population of the species has exceeded the capacity of estuaries like the lagoon to support such large numbers in the long term. Runoff and sewage pollution cause an excess of algae that suffocates seagrass beds, which has done far more harm to manatees than their boats, they say.

McRae said death rates have returned to more normal levels on the east coast, noting the state has seen a year of manatee deaths in six months.

“We have had manatee deaths along the entire Atlantic coast, from lower St. Johns to southeast Florida,” McRae said. “By May 2021, the carcass count was back to normal levels. But because of this big manatee slug on the east coast, we’ve already set a record six months in the year.”

McRae said the agency is trying to care for a large number of calves that are often in poor health after losing their mothers.

“One thing unique to this particular event that we’ve never seen before is a number of orphaned calves,” McRae said. “These calves require a lot of care and they often have to be bottle-fed and it can take two years before they are ready to be released from captivity.”

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Jim Waymer is an environmental journalist at FLORIDA TODAY.

Contact Waymer at 321-242-3663

or jwaymer@floridatoday.com.

Twitter: @JWayEnviro

Facebook: www.facebook.com/jim.waymer

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