As manatee deaths continue to rise, Florida wildlife officials ask boaters to look out

539 manatee deaths reported since January

This young male adult manatee was rescued from the Suwannee River in the town of Suwannee at the end of June. Veterinarians later determined that the manatee had been cut several times by a propeller on his right side over his lungs, had several broken ribs and was struggling with monofilament fishing line he had swallowed. He spent three months in rehab at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo before being released Sept. 21, 2012. (FWC 2021)

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Manatee deaths are on track to reach new records this year as the sea cows face multiple environmental threats, but Florida wildlife officials are asking boaters to take extra precautions this year to prevent adding to the problem.

A combination of cold weather, a decline in seagrass due to development and contaminated waterways have put Florida on pace for its highest number of manatee deaths in a decade.

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The number of deaths, 539 in the first three months of year, is on track to surpass last year’s total -- and soon, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission manatee mortality data as of March 19. Last year, the state recorded 637 manatee deaths for the entire year, and in 2019, there were 607.

So far this year, watercraft have accounted for 20, or 4%, of manatee fatalities in Florida waterways. Last year, watercraft accounted for 90 deaths, however, that number could be higher due to pandemic-related limitations to perform necropsies, according to FWC.

On Wednesday, the FWC issued a reminder to boaters to slow down and look out for manatees this spring. As water temperatures warm up, manatees begin to move away from their winter habitats, according to Florida wildlife officials.

“This year, especially along the east coast, it is critical that people watch for manatees when on the water,” said Ron Mezich, Imperiled Species Management section leader. “With warmer weather, manatees will begin to disperse into open water, heading to a variety of coastal and freshwater habitats containing more ample food sources.”

From April 1 to Nov. 15 seasonal manatee zones are in effect, requiring boaters to slow down in marked areas to prevent from striking manatees.

Last year, FWC reports 29 manatees were injured from watercraft collisions.

Wildlife officials warn that manatees can be hard to see when they are submerged underwater. There are a few tips to help boaters spot them, including wearing polarized sunglasses, avoiding shallow areas to prevent damaging seagrass, looking out for large circles in the water, which are known as manatee footprints, and checking for snouts sticking up out of the water.

For more tips to help protect manatees, click here.

Anyone who encounters an injured or stranded should call the FWC’s wildlife alert hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922) or by dialing #FWC or *FWC on a cellphone so trained responders can assist.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.