Despite slight decrease, biologists expect manatee deaths to continue into 2023

2021 saw record-breaking number of manatees die in Florida, mostly in Indian River Lagoon

INDIAN RIVER LAGOON, Fla. – While 2022 did not prove to be as deadly for Florida’s manatees as 2021, researchers said the animals are still in trouble, especially in the Indian River Lagoon.

Biologists said they expect the number to grow this winter, specifically here in Central Florida.

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“We’re going to have almost as many manatees dying in Brevard County as we did last year,” said Dr. Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club.

These winter months are the toughest for manatees. They’re trying to stay warm and find food, which Rose said is still sparse, causing many to starve.

“There’s some indications that there’s some regrowth within the Mosquito Lagoon area. Still very, very sparse in the Banana River and Indian River,” he said.

This comes after 2021 proved a record-breaking year for manatee deaths, the majority of which were in the Indian River Lagoon.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s latest data shows 783 manatees have died so far in Florida in 2022. That’s compared to 1,080 in 2021 during that same time frame.

In Brevard and Volusia counties alone, 379 manatees died so far this year compared to 434 in all of last year.

Scientists said the poor water quality in the lagoon killed off most of the seagrass the manatees eat.

“It’s going to take several years for those seagrasses to come back and that’s dependent on a lot of things that are largely out of our control,” said Tom Reinert with the FWC.

The FWC just started its second year of a trial feeding manatees romaine lettuce at a temporary feeding site in Brevard.

In its first two weeks, the trial has seen some improvement in the visitors compared to last year.

“We did see quite a few that were showing signs of sideways swimming, facial tremors, full skeletal structure. This year to date, we have not seen any animals showing these signs, which is promising,” said Michelle Pasawicz with FWC.

Researchers with the FWC stressed this week that the feeding is just temporary until they see more seagrass grow and while there have been signs of improvement in the lagoon’s manatees, they do expect to see more deaths especially with recent cold snap.

“We know there are animals out there that are still underweight, and we expect mortality to rise later this week,” said Ron Mezich with the FWC.

These organizations ramped up rescue efforts over the last year, too, rescuing 105 across the state so far. As of this week, 74 manatees from Florida are in rehab facilities across the country and the majority will be released once healthy.

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Molly joined News 6 at the start of 2021, returning home to Central Florida.