Thousands of acres of seagrass in Florida have died because of nutrient pollution that has caused algae blooms and left manatees without an adequate food source. Learn more about this issue, projects that are being undertaken, and ways you can help.

May 25, 2023

This page will be updated as new information becomes available. 

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 equal to over 25% of the estimated manatee population.

Trouble for Manatees in the Indian River Lagoon

Relative Density of Manatee Carcass Recovery Locations. Preliminary data for 2022.Map of Florida shows a heat map of areas where manatee carcasses were found in 2022. Sparse numbers were recovered along the Tampa Bay and Southwest Florida coasts. Dense numbers were recovered in the area of the Indian River Lagoon, on the state's east coast. Recoveries were sparse elsewhere along the East Coast, with the exception of a small area between Miami and Coral Springs.
Note: data is preliminary. As of February 6, 2023, there were 800 confirmed carcasses recovered in 2022. Click here to view a full-size version of this map.

An excess of nitrogen and phosphorus in waterways can fuel algae and cause it to grow faster than the ecosystem can tolerate. In the IRL, a combination of improperly treated sewage, leaking septic systems, fertilizers, and stormwater runoff has led to eutrophication. This means that frequent harmful algal blooms have blocked the light necessary for photosynthesis. The result: the tragic loss of more than 90% of the seagrass biomass within the Indian River Lagoon.

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.

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.

Manatees gathering at warm water locations—such as power plants—along the IRL have faced an additional threat, beginning with the 2020-2021 winter season, because there has been very little seagrass or other 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.

Emaciated Manatee Rescue
An emaciated manatee is rescued by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Between December 2020 and December 2022, over 2,000 manatees perished in Florida. 744 of those deaths occurred in Brevard County, which is considered the epicenter of the Unusual Mortality Event.

In a healthy ecosystem, free-ranging manatee grazing makes seagrass communities more productive. Manatees have evolved along with seagrass communities for millions of years and primarily crop the grasses rather than uprooting entire plants, which can actually stimulate the grasses to grow. The loss of seagrass in the IRL is largely due to persistent and recurring environmental events that have changed the ecosystem over time—especially from human sources of pollution.

What Else Is Being Done to Help Malnourished Manatees?

Save the Manatee Club is a founding member of the Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Partnership (MRP), a network of partners who participate in the rescue, rehabilitation, release, and post-release monitoring of sick or injured manatees. We are working together with our partners in the MRP to identify manatees in distress due to devastating seagrass losses in Indian River Lagoon.

Save the Manatee Club and our partners are also working diligently on improving water quality to enable natural regrowth of seagrasses and to replant areas where replanting is feasible now.

See Save the Manatee Club’s Work below for more information on our activities to help manatees during the UME.

What You Can Do

If you are at all concerned that a manatee may be sick, injured, entangled, or orphaned, or if you see a manatee that is being harassed or wearing a “tag” or tracking device, please immediately report it to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) 24-hour Wildlife Alert Hotline by calling 1-888-404-3922 (FWCC).

You can help by going Fertilizer-Free for Manatees
While Save the Manatee Club works with our partners to strengthen policies that protect water quality, the individual actions of each Florida resident can make a big difference for the health of our waterways. Learn how to do your part and take Save the Manatee Club’s pledge to be Fertilizer-Free for Manatees.

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.

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.

Algae bloom warming sign
Algae bloom warning sign.

While there are many large-scale sources of pollution, it’s impossible to overstate the value of individual actions. What you do at home can make a big impact—whether you live near the Indian River Lagoon or not. Most people in the United States live in a watershed (a land area that drains to a river, lake, ocean, or other waterway)!

Here are some examples of direct actions you can take to protect our waterways in Florida (and some from wherever you may live):

More actions you can take for the environment:

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