Nov 16, 2021 - News

Florida records 1,000 manatee deaths in 2021

Illustration of a pattern of manatees.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

One thousand manatees have died in Florida waters this year — a heartbreaking number for a state that celebrates the big, slow, beautiful dopes.

  • This is by far the deadliest year for manatees and far more than the previous record: 830 in 2013.

Flashback: After we passed this terrible milestone, we were curious about the first reported death. While ground zero for manatee deaths appears to be the depleted winter feeding grounds in the Indian River Lagoon on the east coast, it turns out the first was right here. And it is pitiful.

  • The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's first report of a dead manatee this year came at 6:30am on January 1 from a woman who lived on a canal just north of the Courtney Campbell Causeway, Tampa side.
  • The woman, whom the FWC identified only as Elly, had seen the manatee the night before, as New Years Eve fireworks lit the sky across Tampa Bay.

FWC gave the manatee its first name: MNW21001, female, a few inches over 7 feet long.

  • Elly no longer lives on the canal, but told us that she always felt like it was a grand privilege — an honor — to see manatees in the wild. And she was sad to see a dead one.
  • The photo FWC provided to Axios is shocking.

The next day: A Tampa police officer called FWC to report a dead manatee floating near the Courtney Campbell Causeway boat ramp. But because of the holiday, no one was available.

  • Three days later, a Hillsborough County parks employee reported complaints about a dead manatee.
  • That afternoon, Jan. 5, an FWC employee finally dragged MNW21001 east and secured her in mangroves to decompose.
  • She was not necropsied, so we don’t know how she died. And biologists can only guess as to how she lived — manatees can migrate hundreds of miles.

What we now know: MNW21001 was the first of 1,000 dead manatees this year — national news all year long.

  • And as winter sets in and manatees return to warmer waters, still lacking life-giving seagrass, it could get even worse.

So we asked FWC a dumb question: Is there anything Florida residents can do to help with supplemental feeding?

  • Not, like, throwing store-bought lettuce into the Hillsborough, but ...

What they're saying: Carly Jones from FWC's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute let us know that’s illegal for both individuals and environmental groups.

  • "While this may seem like it would be a great solution, feeding manatees can be considered harassment and is prohibited by state and federal law."

Instead: FWC is working on a list of habitat restoration projects, but heres how you can help:

Bigger still, help improve local water quality by:

  • Cutting out fertilizers and pesticides.
  • Picking up dog poop.
  • Leaving grass clippings and leaves on your lawn.
  • Washing your car on the grass or at the car wash — both ways of preventing contaminated water from flowing directly into waterways.
  • Switching from septic systems to municipal sewer or updating your septic system.
  • Plant a native yard.

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