Why are Florida’s manatees dying off?
The federal government has agreed to look into that, responding to a plea made earlier this month by Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park, her office announced Tuesday.
“Florida’s diverse animal life is deeply important to people in our state, and few creatures are more beloved than the manatee,” Murphy stated in a news release. “I’m pleased that, in response to my request, the federal government has determined the spike in manatee deaths requires a swift and decisive response.”
Between Jan. 1 and Feb. 26, the state recorded 403 manatee deaths, about triple the normal level. According to reports, manatees may be starving because of a decline in seagrass, their primary food source. The Daytona Beach News-Journal reported in February that since 2009, 58% of the seagrass in the Indian River Lagoon system has disappeared, choked from diminished sunlight as a result of an over-saturation of nutrients in the water.
“This is the first time I’ve seen them starving,” Patrick Rose, Executive Director of the Save the Manatee Club, told the newspaper. “It’s been out of control. Essentially, it’s an emergency.”
On March 11, Murphy wrote to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asking the agency to look into it and see what could be done Specifically, Murphy asked the agency to determine whether the die-off constituted an “Unusual Mortality Event,” a designation that authorizes federal involvement.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife quickly determined the answer is yes, Murphy announced.
The agency will start an investigation with the goal of determining the causes, assessing the effects of whatever is happening to the overall population, and minimizing future deaths. The Fish and Wildlife Service would work in coordination with Florida and with non-profit organizations on the investigation and to take appropriate immediate steps to prevent more manatees from dying.
The West Indian manatee’s population in the southeastern United States was as small as 1,300 in the early 1990s and had grown to 6,500 because of conservation efforts.