January 24, 2023
This page will be updated as new information becomes available.
Preliminary 2022 manatee mortality statistics have been released, and a total of 800 manatees were recorded to have died in the state of Florida in 2022. While this number is down from 1,100 deaths in 2021, the number of deaths remains above the five-year average. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have has resumed its supplemental feeding trial in Brevard County. Click to learn more from FWC, and read on for more information on the root cause of the unusual mortality event (UME) caused by harmful algal blooms in the Indian River Lagoon, how Save the Manatee Club has taken action, and what you can do.
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 and 2021 – 2022 winter seasons 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.
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 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, such as improperly-treated sewage, leaking septic systems, and fertilizers, together with stormwater runoff. All these factors combined have led to eutrophication that has resulted in frequent harmful algal blooms that blocked the light necessary for photosynthesis and resulted in the tragic loss of more than 90% of the seagrass biomass within the Indian River Lagoon.
What is Being Done to Help Malnourished Manatees?
Save the Manatee Club is part of a network of partners in the Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Partnership (MRP) who help rescue and rehabilitate sick or injured manatees, which includes severely malnourished manatees. Together with partners in the MRP, we working hard to identify 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. Experimental feeding efforts were undertaken this past winter by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to supplement 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. (Click here to watch a short video with more information about why you should not feed or give water to manatees.)
- Get information from the FWC on how supplemental feeding for manatees in the Indian River Lagoon was handled this winter.
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 in 2021-2022 below for more information on our activities to help manatees during the UME.
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.
- 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:
- 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. Check out Lagoon Watch with our partners at the Marine Resources Council, Restore Our Shores with the Brevard Zoo, and volunteer opportunities with the Florida Oceanographic Society.
Click to View:
- Save the Manatee Club has spent $30,000 in legal fees to protect critical habitat for manatees and water quality standards in Florida. SMC is 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. Together with the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife, we filed suit against the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in order to compel the agency to update the manatee’s critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act. In June, FWS committed to do so by September 2024. SMC is also urging FWS to restore the manatee’s status as an endangered species, as they were prematurely downgraded in 2017.
- The Club has given $23,000 to the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, a rehabilitation facility, for the care and feeding of manatees rescued because of sickness or injury and for orphaned calves.
- Save the Manatee Club is funding travel expenses for the IRL Drone monitoring project volunteers to better assess manatee body condition and inform rescue teams of manatees who may be in distress. This is an ongoing project.
- 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.
- 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 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. An annual matching grant of up to $75,000 from the Club is available for program funds provided by other MRP partners. An additional $15,000 in items for manatee rehabilitation facilities have been donated by Club supporters through our Amazon Wishlist.
- Save the Manatee Club is a sponsor of the Marine Resource’s Council Indian River Lagoon Report Card that shares data about the state of the Indian River Lagoon with federal and Florida legislators, the public, and other entities, and has contributed $20,000 toward production and distribution.
- Save the Manatee Club ran 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.
- Save the Manatee Club, in cooperation with state and private partners, has funded over $5,000 for aerial surveys of the IRL to study seagrass coverage and the health of manatee populations throughout the area and plans to continue funding for the foreseeable future.
- Save the Manatee Club has funded a $10,000 grant to the University of Florida for research to understand if glyphosate is somehow interfering with submerged plants and contributing to the starvation that manatees are experiencing. A 2021 UF Aquatic Animal Health study found that 55.8% of the Florida manatees tested have glyphosate in their bloodstream, which may cause organ damage and cancerous tumors.
- 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 the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the St. John’s River Water Management District, and others. The Club has committed $10,000 in matching funds to partner with the Marine Resources Council to create and support a Seagrass Assembly to aid in fostering seagrass restoration efforts within the Indian River Lagoon (IRL).
- 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.
- Save the Manatee Club has increased public awareness of these issues through numerous interviews and media coverage. See our News page for more.
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