The most recent manatee population survey by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission shows 400 Florida manatees died in 2019. But 2021 could set a new mortality record, due to water pollution and loss of food and habitat. (Adobe Stock)

By Michayla Savitt, Public News Service

Polluted wastewater released into Tampa Bay at Piney Point in the last two weeks is only one threat to Florida manatees, as an increase in manatee deaths is under investigation on the state’s Atlantic coast.

The State of Florida has already documented 613 manatee deaths this year, and could see a record number of fatalities in 2021.

Now, a possible red tide from the Piney Point breach could release toxins that would kill manatees and seagrass, which they eat.

Liz Neville, senior Gulf Coast representative at Defenders of Wildlife, cited Florida’s systemic mismanagement of environment, lands and waterways as a culprit.

“The Piney Point disaster, as well as the ongoing manatee mortality event – which is linked to water pollution – really show that we have an urgent need to protect and restore our lands and waters, and natural habitat,” Neville contended.

Last week, the state Senate approved a $3 million addition to the state budget to help clean up the area.

Neville hopes lawmakers will prioritize manatees by enforcing and enhancing protections in the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act, both of which saw some aspects rolled back in recent years.

Elizabeth Fleming, senior Florida representative at Defenders of Wildlife, said the greatest long-term threats to manatees are the loss of habitat and warm-water areas as a result of land development.

“What we’ve seen this year is the double whammy of there being cold weather, so manatees going to these warm-water areas, many of them the artificial power plant sources of water,” Fleming outlined. “And then, when they needed to go and eat something nearby, their food source was gone.”

Conservation groups are working on restoration projects, such as the Great Florida Riverway, to give wildlife like manatees access to springs previously blocked by the dam and its impacts.

Fleming added her organization wants the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to work with Florida on recovery efforts, to ensure the state doesn’t backtrack on progress to save the species.

“The manatee was downlisted in 2017 from an endangered species to a threatened species, Fleming recounted. “And that indicated good progress, but it does not mean that this animal is safe from ongoing and future threats, some of which we see are getting worse.”

This time of year, boaters are also being encouraged to pay close attention to avoid hitting manatees swimming from their winter habitats. Watercraft accidents account for more than 100 manatee deaths per year.

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