Date: January 14, 2022
This page will be updated as new information becomes available.
Save the Manatee Club has received many calls, comments, and questions in regard to the loss of seagrass, algae blooms, and increased manatee mortalities in Florida. We encourage you to share your stories and your photographs with your online network of contacts and with your elected officials at the local, state, and federal levels (see contact information below). Please ask for their help in healing our waters.
Trouble for Manatees in the Indian River Lagoon
The Indian River Lagoon (IRL) stretches for 156 miles along Florida’s east central coast. There are more than 4,400 species of plants and animals — including manatees — that are found in the lagoon watershed. Unfortunately, as the direct result of human derelictions over many decades, the Indian River Lagoon has suffered a series of harmful algal blooms, leading to massive losses in seagrass coverage and, in turn, the recent deaths of a heart-rending number of manatees.
Manatees gathering at warm water locations such as powerplants along the IRL faced an additional threat during the 2020-2021 winter season because there was very little seagrass or vegetation for them to eat in the immediate vicinity. Traveling further for forage would mean deadly exposure to cold water, so the manatees ultimately choose to forgo feeding over dying from the cold. Between December 2020 and May 2021, there were 677 dead manatees reported on Florida’s east coast. In 2021, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) declared an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) for manatees. A UME involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population and demands immediate response.
- See our opinion editorial: A State of Emergency for Manatees in the Indian River Lagoon and Beyond.
- Get more information from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) on the Manatee UME.
Excessive human-produced nutrient pollution is a growing threat to all seagrass communities. When combined with the warming effects of climate change and sea level rise, these excess nutrients present an even greater danger to the future of seagrasses wherever they are found.
Before the IRL can be functionally restored, it will be necessary to prevent new sources of nutrient pollution from entering the lagoon as well as strategically removing or sequestering legacy nutrients to make them unavailable as a source of new Harmful Algal Blooms (HAB). Ideally, seagrasses will begin to reestablish on their own, but the process may be facilitated through the restoration of filter feeding organisms and selective pilot seagrass restoration projects. Ultimately, we must reverse those conditions that lead to the loss of seagrasses in the first place if we are going to restore seagrasses.
What is Being Done to Help Feed Malnourished Manatees This Winter?
Save the Manatee Club is part of a network of partners who help rescue and rehabilitate sick or injured manatees, which includes severely malnourished manatees. The Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Partnership (MRP) works year-round to provide acute or long-term care to sick, injured, and starving manatees. We expect the severe problems to intensity this winter because the weather is cooler. Together with partners in the MRP, we working hard to identify malnourished manatees and prepare for more manatees in distress due to devastating seagrass losses in Indian River Lagoon.
This involves increased monitoring and a minimum of providing manatees with limited food and water when medically indicated while monitoring the manatees’ response and body condition. Recently, the FWS and FWC approved a joint plan to move forward with supplementing the diet of malnourished manatees seeking warm water refuge in the Indian River Lagoon. Ultimately, the decision of whether to feed manatees is physiologically and logistically complicated as it is currently illegal to feed or give water to manatees. Please leave it to the experts! Do not feed manatees on your own, and share this message with your friends, family, and neighbors.
- Get information from the FWC on how supplemental feeding for manatees in the Indian River Lagoon is being handled.
What You Can Do
Please get involved with local nonprofit groups and elected leaders in your area to help address these issues. Dirty water is a threat to health, to our economy, and to the quality of life for humans and other species like manatees.
- Report distressed, sick, injured or dead manatees at 1-888-404-FWCC (3922) or use VHF Channel 16 on your marine radio. You can also download the free FWC Reporter App on your smartphone or tablet.
- Help reduce pollution and prevent harmful algal blooms from forming. Too many yard chemicals, including fertilizer and herbicides, are entering our waterways, causing algal blooms that kill seagrasses and harm manatees. Here are some tips to help you love your lawn and manatees, too.
Fertilize less, or not at all. Get to know your yard’s fertilizer needs. Many established landscapes may not need fertilizer. Problems may be caused by other issues such as thatch build up, iron deficiency, or overwatering. Your local UF-IFAS Extension Office can assist with soil tests, plant recommendations, and specific lawn questions.
- Know your local fertilizer regulations. When in doubt, if you must use fertilizer, apply slow-release nitrogen fertilizers to your lawn only once per year.
- Follow Florida Friendly Landscaping™ principles. If you live near a water body, leave at least a 10-foot-buffer along the shoreline where no fertilizing occurs. And if you hire landscape professionals, they should be certified in best management practices and have their Limited Urban Commercial Applicator Certificate. Search for certified professionals here.
- Learn more tips to reduce lagoon pollution from our conservation partners:
- Please don’t feed or give manatees water. Giving food or water to manatees is illegal and teaches them to associate people and/or boats with handouts, which changes their behavior and puts them in harm’s way. Any “feeding events” on social media have not been approved by state or federal government.
- Be seagrass safe. Prevent damage to seagrasses by avoiding boating over seagrass beds. If you must boat over seagrass beds, trim up your motor and idle to a safe depth before getting on plane, and carefully push your boat away if you run aground.
- Signup for cleanup and other events to help protect the manatee’s aquatic habitat. You can find them on the Save the Manatee Club Upcoming Events and Facebook Events pages. You can sign up to volunteer for future seagrass planting projects here.
Write to your elected officials to urge them to help manatees and the Indian River Lagoon:
- Write to Florida Governor DeSantis and urge him to support the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) in its role as the lead coordinator of the Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Partnership. Write to Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried about stopping the toxic discharges to the coast. Watch this short video from the Everglades Trust to learn more. Learn about the FWC response to the manatee mortality event.
- Write to President Biden and the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, your state and U.S. congressional representatives and senators, and your local newspapers and social networks, to share your thoughts, concerns, photos and videos. Ask elected officials to investigate the situation in the Indian River Lagoon and develop contingency plans to avoid future mortality events.
- Save the Manatee Club is currently running a billboard campaign to try to reach residents and visitors along the Indian River Lagoon, asking them to to “take a break from fertilizer” to protect manatee habitat. Thank you Lamar Advertising of Daytona Beach!
- Save the Manatee Club helped fund the distribution of the Marine Resource’s Council Indian River Lagoon Report Card that shares data about the state of the IRL.
So far in 2021, Save the Manatee Club, in cooperation with state and private partners, has funded three aerial surveys of the IRL to study seagrass coverage and manatee populations throughout the area and plans to continue funding for the foreseeable future.
- Save the Manatee Club is both directly and indirectly involved with seeking funds for, and the coordination of, Seagrass/Submerged Aquatic Vegetation (SAV) planting projects by our conservation partners at Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the St. John’s River Water Management District, and others. There are several projects underway and several more in the planning and permitting stage. Project viability will be influenced by many factors and not all areas that have lost seagrass/SAV can be replanted at this time and will require further water quality improvements in order to be a viable replanting area.
- Save the Manatee Club participates as a charter member of the Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Partnership (MRP). SMC has worked with partners to release rehabilitated manatees at Blue Spring State Park this winter, as an alternative to the IRL area, for a safe, warm site with plenty of vegetation. SMC also sponsors many partner efforts in the MRP by providing equipment and funding.
- Save the Manatee Club has a long and continuing history of working with the state of Florida to develop stronger Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs), which are “blueprints” for restoring impaired waters by reducing pollutant loadings. SMC advocates for more conservative Minimum Flows and Levels (MFLs), which help protect water resources from significant harm from water withdrawals, as well as waterway restoration plans.
- SMC is also advocating for stronger protections for manatees and their aquatic habitat both at the state level in Florida and federally. We are pressing agencies to address the decades of excess nutrient pollution entering our waterways and leading to Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) that devastate seagrasses and other manatee forage. We are advocating for the addition of Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration as a component of President Biden’s Infrastructure Improvement Initiative. And we are also urging the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to update the manatee’s critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act and to restore the manatee’s status as an endangered species, as they were prematurely downgraded in 2017. See our March 2016 op-ed: Threats to Manatees and Habitat on the Rise.
- Save the Manatee Club has increased public awareness of these issues through numerous interviews and media coverage. See our News page for more.
- SMC is actively working to support additional federal and state funding for contingency planning as well as research and the implementation of additional emergency holding capacity for treating sick and injured manatees as well as the staffing and equipment necessary to rescue every manatee in need.
The Piney Point phosphate wastewater leak threatens humans and the Tampa Bay aquatic ecosystem alike. Tampa Bay is frequented by imperiled manatees, and it is possible that nutrients in the discharges might promote algal blooms, which could destroy seagrass and other vegetation and lead to manatee deaths and fish kills in the bay. The leak is another gross example of how Florida has long neglected our natural environment while promoting unsustainable development and monetary profits. This catastrophic potential failure comes at a time when the Indian River Lagoon and other water bodies are suffering from decades of similar neglect. Perhaps now is the time when Florida’s Legislature and the U.S. Congress will finally face up to the fact that we can’t keep putting greed over science and accountability. Save the Manatee Club is committed to relentlessly pressing our governmental leaders to act once and for all to put scientifically-based protections over short-term profits. See Tampa Bay Sampling Response and Results from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
- See the Marine Resource’s Council Indian River Lagoon Report Card
- Florida Manatees are Dying of Starvation at an Alarming Rate
Patrick Rose, Save the Manatee Club Executive Director is interviewed on The Weekly on News 6
- Webinar: What’s Going on With the Manatees in the Indian River Lagoon?
- Indian River Lagoon: Why All of Us Should Love Seagrass
An informative webinar from the Marine Discovery Center.
- Manatee Mortality Event Along The East Coast: 2020-2021
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
- Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection – Algal Bloom Sampling Status
- MOTE Marine Laboratory – Beach Conditions Reporting System