500 Manatee Deaths in 2017…and Counting
Last Year’s Mortality Spike Already Topped Before December Cold Snaps
Washington, DC — This has not been a good year for Florida manatees, according to figures posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In 2017 through early December, 500 manatees have died, eclipsing the prior year’s losses and extending a spike in manatee mortality.
The latest compilation of reports from the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) show manatee deaths continuing to trend up in 2017 – already above the 481 recorded manatee losses in 2016, and a substantial rise from the 404 manatee deaths in 2015 and 371 in 2014. The 2017 figures, however, do not include any mortality from the mid-December and predicted post-Christmas cold snaps.
Florida’s manatee population faces a triple threat of rising boat traffic, loss of habitat (particularly warm springs) and red tides and algal blooms poisoning the manatees and their food supplies:
- In 2017, one-fifth of manatee deaths were attributed to boat collisions. Year-end totals could set a new record in watercraft-related fatalities, surpassing the 102 total from last year;
- In 2017, FWC identified 63 manatee deaths where red tide events were the positive or suspected cause. That was a substantial increase from the 53 such deaths recorded in 2016, the 15 in 2015 and the only 4 registered for 2014. At the same time, the danger of toxic red tides is again on the rise. Massive toxic red tide events sparked the all-time record die-off of 803 manatees in 2013; and
- Manatees are also vulnerable to extreme weather. So far this year, 23 manatees have died from cold stress, a number that matches the five-year average for this cause. In 2010, a disastrously severe cold spell caused 282 manatees to perish.
“Florida’s manatees remain in a precarious state, beset by mounting habitat loss, growing pollution, and rising peril from boat propellers,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Manatees remain one big freeze or red-tide event from a population implosion.”
Nonetheless in 2017, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service reduced safeguards for the West Indian manatee by downgrading its status from endangered to threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. This action took place over the objections of many experts that the best available scientific data indicates that downlisting at this time is inappropriate. Manatee mortality is several times above its potential biological removal level or PBR, defined by the Marine Mammal Protection Act as “the maximum number of animals, not including natural mortalities, that may be removed from a marine mammal stock while allowing that stock to reach or maintain its optimum sustainable population.”
“The uncertainties determining the future of Florida manatees dictate caution rather than self-congratulation,” added Ruch, noting that the FWC lists “Unknown” as the single biggest manatee mortality category – accounting for 116 deaths in 2017. “Manatees need more pro-active protection than simply hoping for the best.”