Manatee Awareness Month
In 2005, Florida officially declared November as Manatee Awareness Month—and this year, these gentle aquatic giants could use our help more than ever.
Since their placement on the endangered species list in 1967, the population of Florida manatees has shown much-celebrated improvement, and their conservation status was elevated from endangered to threatened in 2017. This year, though, there's more cause for concern than celebration when it comes to Florida's state marine mammal.
So far this year, there have been nearly 1,000 manatee deaths in Florida—more than any full year on record. The majority of these marine mammals have died from starvation. The culprit? The disappearance of seagrass that manatees depend on to survive. Manmade pollutants have significantly impacted water quality, causing algal blooms that block sunlight from reaching seagrasses. Without sunlight, these seagrasses—which are the manatees' main food supply—die off. Since 2009, about 58% of the seagrasses in the Indian River Lagoon—where many of the deaths have occurred—has been lost.
Manatees can spend up to seven hours a day snacking on aquatic vegetation, and can eat 100 to 200 pounds of plants in 24 hours.
According to state estimates, there are currently between 7,500 and 10,200 manatees currently in Florida. Although the death rate has slowed in recent months, officials are estimating that colder weather in upcoming months could significantly increase the total number of deaths by the time the year is done. Colder seasonal water temperatures cause manatees to migrate to pockets of warmer water—either created by natural springs or the outflow from power plants—where seagrass is currently scarce.
There is good news, though: Florida legislators approved $8 million earlier this year to assist in a manatee habitat restoration program, and state officials asked for an additional $7 million in October from lawmakers for restoration and rescue. These efforts are encouraging, but it's still imperative to improve water quality by reducing the excess nutrients and pollutants that are entering waterways and causing harmful algae blooms.
No matter where you live—in Florida near manatees or elsewhere—you can do your part to protect the wildlife in your local waterways. Reduce harmful stormwater runoff by planting a rain garden or using a rain barrel; minimize or eliminate your use of fertilizers, herbicides and harmful pesticides in your lawn; and pick up your pet waste. These individual actions all help to lessen the amount of excess fertilizer and pollutants that wash into storm drains, and eventually, our local waterways.