Experts Call for Environmental Protection of Florida Manatees As Yearly Deaths Double.

Ana Cedeno / Contributing Writer

The Florida manatee, a symbol of the state’s unique aquatic ecosystem, is experiencing its gravest year in history as local scientists expect 15 percent of its population to die by the end of the year.

James W. Fourqurean, associate director of FIU’s Institute of Environment, says humans and agricultural development in South Florida can be largely attributed to the increase in deaths.

“If we’ve managed to change the environment so much that we’re being threatened with losing this large creature that’s been here for millions and millions of years… then how much longer will it take for us to make the environment so bad we’ll disappear too?” said Fourqurean who also teaches biological sciences.

The 1,003 manatee deaths recorded in the state this year more than doubled last year’s 483 deaths, according to mortality statistics provided by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).

The Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for their failure to protect the natural habitats of manatees. 

While manatee deaths have been steadily climbing over the years, the most recent spike Fourqurean says, is tied to the death of seagrass, which is the manatee’s main source of food. 

As agricultural development pollutes the water, the manatee’s main food source – seagrass – becomes unable to oxygenate their roots, which lie buried in the mud.

Without the seagrass, explained Fourqurean, manatees are struggling to survive. This has led to multiple dead manatees being found in the Indian River Lagoon.

Fourqurean says the disposal of high nutrient level waste waters and uncontrolled storm runoff are the primary forms of pollution inhibiting the manatee’s food supply.

However, he said this pollution could be prevented. 

“We know how to control, it just takes money and planning,” said Fourqurean. “It’s not population growth that’s the problem, it’s population growth not being done in a smart way.”

James W. Fourqurean, University Professor; Associate Director, Institute of Environment

Biological Sciences. Picture courtesy of case.fiu.edu.

Other preventable human factors, such as boat collisions, also set up challenges for the species, said Fourqurean. Manatees tend to float slowly near the water surface, leaving them vulnerable to boaters traveling at high speeds.

Though no wake zones, which enforce slower boating speeds, can reduce these collisions, coastal communities have advocated against these zones as inconvenient for residents. 

“People don’t like the slow motor restrictions and the water use restrictions in the waters around their house,” said Forqurean. “If manatees weren’t listed, they wouldn’t have those restrictions, so there’s these political pressures to delist the species.”

Fourqurean believes the rising manatee deaths should be considered a warning of what’s to come.

“It is possible to urbanize a coastal area without impacting the water quality. We know how to do this, we’re just not doing it,” said Fourqurean.

While Fourqurean remains optimistic, he called on citizens and legislators alike to protect the species.

“We need to act locally, we need to act individually to reduce the nutrients that leave our living spaces and end up in the water,” said Fourqurean. “Do what you can do, but then vote for people that are in favor of policies that will lead to decreasing the deterioration of water quality.”

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