‘Not out of the woods:’ Manatee death numbers improve along Central Florida coast

Manatee deaths hit record volumes in 2021 with over 1,100

BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – New numbers from the state show manatee deaths in Central Florida are down by hundreds so far this year.

It may be a good sign for the area after Florida’s sea cow population hit record numbers for deaths in 2021 with over 1,100 and then hundreds more last year.

The Indian River Lagoon accounted for the majority of the deaths in the state in the last two years, mostly because of its poor water quality. Now, biologists tell News 6 they’re finally starting to see conditions improve.

“It’s a significant improvement, but what I also want to make clear is that we’re not out of the woods by any means,” said Dr. Patrick Rose.

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Rose heads the Central Florida-based nonprofit and research team Save the Manatee Club.

“The negative factor in all of this is there are far fewer manatees on the east coast to be counted and therefore far fewer to die,” he said.

Looking at Brevard, Volusia and Indian River counties — the three counties that host the Indian River Lagoon — there have been 35 deaths total so far this year, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife data.

However, the lagoon already lost 402 manatees in all of 2022 and 459 manatees in the record-breaking year of 2021. Most starved to death.

Rose said roughly 75% to 90% of the seagrass they eat was killed off by algae feeders like fertilizer, but that’s turning around.

“Water quality conditions have been somewhat better over the last nine months or so. We’ve seen some recovery of seagrass,” he said.

Rose said local governments working on water quality have helped, and the environment has been providing better growing conditions for seagrass. He said researchers feeding lettuce to manatees in Brevard County over the last two winters has kept some of the populations there up, too.

Now, they’re tracking the problem on the other side of the state.

“We’ve seen this lessening mortality in Brevard, which is typically one of the leading two counties. The other leading county, historically, is Lee County. We’ve had over 80 manatees that have been recovered dead in Lee County,” Rose said.

State-wide data shows in the first half of this year, there have been 332 deaths across Florida. There were 800 in all of 2022 and 1,100 in 2021.

Rose said several organizations are now suing the EPA to improve water quality standards and in the meantime, pushing all residents to help, too.

“Encouraging residents and local governments to continue to voluntarily not apply fertilizers in these systems that can contribute towards the algal blooms and so forth,” he said.

Another positive is the expanded resources in the state to rescue manatees this year. Rose said over 60 have been rescued and are being rehabilitated right now before many are released back into the wild.

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About the Author:

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