ORLANDO, Fla.—The manatee was too weak to swim.
She lay still in a medical pool at a SeaWorld rehabilitation center, only lifting her whiskered snout every so often to breathe. Her snout rested upon a pipe to make the effort easier. Her body was slender, hardly that of the chunky manatee—a relative of elephants—that she should have been. Her underbelly was concave. The manatee was near death from starvation.
“You are looking at the body shutting down. You’re looking at the body eating its own fat reserves. You’re looking at the body doing a lot of things to try to save the core,” said Jon Peterson, vice president of zoological operations at SeaWorld, who supervised the manatee’s care along with the veterinary staff. “When that goes on, would that be discomfort? Absolutely. Would that be painful? More than likely.”
Peterson called the manatee No. 37, because she was the 37th manatee to be rescued this year from Florida waters. She weighed 1,170 pounds, up to 630 pounds less than she should have at 12 years old. Her recovery would be long and grueling, if she survived.
“Right now every calorie I’m putting in is trying to care for the body’s decay that’s going on,” he said. “It’s trying to take care of the infections that are raging. So none of those calories yet are going to put weight on. They’re literally going to try to save her body.”
No. 37 is one of the lucky ones. During 2021 an unprecedented 937 manatees have died in Florida, more than double the five-year annual average only nine months into the year. The staggering loss represents 10 percent of the animal’s population in the state, estimated at 8,810.
More than half of the deaths are in the Indian River Lagoon, a 156-mile East Coast estuary that is among the most biologically diverse on the continent. Ongoing water quality problems have led to a widespread loss of seagrass, the manatee’s preferred food. Many of the deaths are related to the kind of starvation No. 37 suffered from, although manatees also face threats from toxic blooms of red tide, habitat loss and boat strikes. Environmental groups say on Florida’s east coast, some 20 percent of the manatee population has been wiped out.
The calamity comes four years after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) effectively declared the manatee on the way toward recovery and downlisted the animal from endangered to threatened, a decision that generated widespread opposition. Now some experts say the downlisting not only was premature but neglected scientifically documented warning signs at the time that manatees were in trouble, leaving the animals vulnerable for the latest in a series of mortality events. Two congressional leaders—Reps. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) and Darren Soto (D-Fla.)—have filed legislation aimed at restoring the manatee’s endangered status.
“If you don’t believe it’s a serious issue and it’s going to be a short-term problem, you’re not going to put the scientific effort into it, or the political effort, or the management practices into place to prevent those declines in the future,” said Pat Rose, an aquatic biologist at the Save the Manatee Club who has spent 40 years working on manatees for the group and also the federal and state government. “That’s what I call neglect—that they misjudged how serious the problems were and didn’t take the appropriate actions to prevent this from declining further.”
Harmful Algae Blooms Have Killed the Seagrass
Among the most important habitats in the world for the iconic charismatic manatee is the Indian River Lagoon, which stretches five counties from Brevard near the state’s midsection south to Palm Beach County. The estuary’s warm brackish waters and historically lush seagrass provide a haven especially during the winter for the animals, which are stressed in cold water.
For the past several years ongoing nutrient pollution associated, for instance, with fertilizers, produced mainly from natural gas, and septic tanks have triggered harmful algae blooms that can cloud the lagoon’s historically crystal-clear water, preventing sunlight from reaching the seagrass undulating beneath the surface. Since 2009, at least 58 percent of the seagrass in the northern Indian River Lagoon has been lost. In the Banana River, part of the northern lagoon, at least 96 percent of the seagrass is gone.
For manatees the paucity means that when a cold snap occurs they face a crucial choice: whether to stay and potentially starve or forage elsewhere and freeze. But manatees in Florida were stressed long before now and not just in the Indian River Lagoon. During the past decade there have been multiple mortality events. In 2013 there were 830 deaths, the previous record.
In January 2021 it was clear something was wrong again in the Indian River Lagoon, said Bill Greer, a research associate at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission who is part of a three-person team rescuing dead and ailing manatees in the lagoon. After a series of cold snaps the team began receiving almost daily calls about dead manatees, more than the team had experienced before. The team members reached out to other agencies for help.
“It’s fairly physical work, just handling the carcasses and manipulating them during the exams,” he said. “It also got to the point where we were trying to make sure we were getting enough time, you know, to kind of recuperate.”
Between December 2020 and May 2021 there were 677 dead manatees reported on Florida’s east coast, the highest number ever recorded in the state during a six-month period. Most of the deaths occurred in January, February and March. The animals were up to 40 percent underweight, with deteriorated muscle and fat and severe atrophy of the liver, heart and other organs. Sixty-seven manatees were rescued, some of them taken to nearby Blue Spring because the Indian River Lagoon at the time was considered “too dangerous” for them.
Experts Opposed ‘Downlisting’ the Manatee
When the USFWS announced in 2017 it would downlist the manatee, the agency said it was because gains in the animal’s population and habitat meant its status no longer fit the definition of endangered. Under the Endangered Species Act, an endangered animal is at risk of extinction throughout all or most of its range. A threatened one is likely to become endangered in the near future. The agency said the animal’s protections would not change.
The downlisting was opposed by all four scientific experts who peer-reviewed the proposal, a vast majority of the 3,799 organizations and individuals who submitted public comments (including petitions signed by 75,276 individuals) and the Miccosukee Tribe. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission supported the downlisting.
The peer reviewers and Miccosukee Tribe cited various concerns including the harmful algae blooms and catastrophic seagrass losses in the Indian River Lagoon, crucial manatee habitat. One reviewer noted the proposal barely mentioned those problems and included few solutions.
The experts worried the proposal was based on an incomplete analysis of the data available at the time and effectively disregarded significant die-offs in 2010 and 2013. They also pointed out there was no discussion of climate change or how factors like sea-level rise, hurricanes and warmer waters—where harmful algae blooms flourish—might affect manatee habitat.
The experts feared the animal’s habitat problems would get worse. USFWS acknowledged the concerns as reasons why the manatee would remain threatened rather than declassified altogether and noted the animal could be reclassified again as endangered should conditions change.
“Especially in the wake of several major die-offs,” wrote peer-reviewer John Reynolds, senior scientist at Mote Marine Laboratory, “it seems possible, and perhaps even likely, that life history parameters of Florida manatees may change for the worse in the near future.”
The downlisting came after a petition from the Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to limited government and individual rights. The group represented waterfront property owners in Crystal River, a manatee haven north of Tampa on Florida’s West Coast. USFWS based its decision in large part on the research of Michael Runge, an ecologist and manatee expert at the U.S. Geological Survey. Runge said his team modeled multiple scenarios for the future manatee population, “kind of what-if scenarios that were meant to sort of investigate our uncertainty about a whole bunch of things” including the Indian River Lagoon. The team also considered the 2010 and 2013 die-offs, he said, although the researchers lacked a complete understanding at the time of the 2013 event’s full impact. Runge did not think the data was worth waiting for.
“If that was the approach you’re going to take, you would never make a decision, right? Because you’d always say, ‘Oh, there’s some event going on. Maybe we need a few more years of data,'” he said. “What I guess is harder to measure is whether public perception of the conservation status has changed and whether public behavior has changed.”
Pat Rose of the Save the Manatee Club said not only did the downlisting not meet Endangered Species Act requirements, which among other things demand an assurance the animal’s habitat is secure and will remain that way for the foreseeable future, but it also sent the message the manatee was OK when it was not, which can affect policy decisions and public attitudes toward the animal. Politicians might decide, for instance, against further habitat protection measures. The Save the Manatee Club along with the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife together have filed a notice of intent to sue USFWS over the manatee’s current plight.
“They actually were required to demonstrate that those risks and threats were under control,” he said. “It’s been anything but that.”
USFWS said work on the manatee has not changed significantly since the downlisting. Chuck Underwood, a spokesman, said the agency now is engaged in a five-year status review, which among other things will examine the 2021 die-off and its potential impact on the future population. He expects that report to be completed next year.
“Our focus hasn’t changed. We remain very focused on manatee conservation,” he said. “There really is no causal relationship between its listed status and what has unfortunately occurred in the Indian River Lagoon.”
Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director and senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, characterized the downlisting another way.
“Rather than keeping your foot on the gas and pushing toward recovery, pushing toward those targets, pushing toward habitat restoration,” she said, “it was like pumping the brakes. Now, you’re still on a ride, you’re still in the car. But you’re slowing down. You’re not moving as quickly toward recovery. And all these other threats have now crept up. And as we’ve seen, we’ve lost about 10 percent of the estimated population statewide in just eight months.”
Bracing For More Deaths
The calamity now has prompted an urgent federal and state effort aimed at bracing for potentially more deaths this coming winter, as the Indian River Lagoon’s water quality problems and seagrass losses will not be resolved anytime soon. USFWS designated the die-off as an Unusual Mortality Event, prompting a federal investigation into why the manatees died and how to prevent future deaths. The Florida Legislature included $8 million for manatees in the state budget. The funding is aimed at habitat restoration and springs, another important habitat for manatees because of their stable temperatures year-round.
Along the Indian River Lagoon, Bill Greer of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said he and the other partner organizations involved in manatee rescues are meeting to discuss how to maximize resources and coordinate efforts should another mortality event occur. The agency also is monitoring the surviving manatees and watching how their movements have changed in the northern lagoon because of the scarcity of food. The coronavirus pandemic prevented some of this monitoring last year, making the die-off especially blind-siding. The agency even is considering supplemental feeding, a controversial measure that also would be challenging logistically for an animal that eats hundreds of pounds of vegetation daily.
Runge said the manatees might bounce right back because of less competition for food. Rose said although he believes USFWS should reclassify the manatee as endangered, that is not his immediate priority.
“I don’t want them to take one minute right now away from doing what’s immediately necessary to recover the population,” he said. “Their habitat and each member of the population.”
For Starving Manatees, a Lengthy Recovery
Among the manatees rescued this year were 13 orphaned calves. At least two ended up at the SeaWorld rehabilitation center in Orlando, in a tank not far from No. 37’s.
The baby manatees were called No. 26 and No. 31. Both were perhaps days old when they were rescued, one with its umbilical cord still attached. Now at 4 to 6 months, the manatees looked plump as they slurped hungrily from bottles, although they faced a long recovery. Each weighed about 80 pounds. They would need to weigh at least 600 pounds before they could be released.
“Unfortunately their mothers are either mortalities or somehow became separated from them,” Peterson said. “We’re looking at three to four years of an investment.”
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The SeaWorld facility is one of four rehabilitating rescued manatees. The others are the Jacksonville Zoo, Miami Seaquarium and ZooTampa, although the vast majority have gone to SeaWorld. What concerns Peterson is that starvation involves a much longer recovery than other threats like red tide, which takes two to three weeks to treat. For starvation, the recovery is six to eight months, and he worries about running out of space should another mortality event occur. He is working with other partner organizations to move healthier manatees elsewhere, to free up SeaWorld’s medical pools for more fragile animals. He said the die-off is disheartening.
“We’ve worked so hard on the plight of the manatee over the last 25 years, getting them back off the endangered species list,” he said. “If that number continues, a population that’s got … 8,000 in it unfortunately will go back to endangered very quickly, and if we’re not able to curb it, it could get worse. That is the fear here.”
This story was produced in partnership with Inside Climate News, a non-profit non-partisan news organization dedicated to covering climate change, energy and the environment.