Florida manatee deaths spike to record high in 2013

Worsening coastal water quality seen as factor

Endangered Florida manatees are dying at an alarming rate. bberwyn photo.

Endangered Florida manatees are dying at an alarming rate. bberwyn photo.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Florida manatee deaths in 2013 spiked to the highest level ever, with the state’s wildlife agency reporting that 829 of the gentle sea cows died during the year. That total is more than double last year’s and exceeds the previous record number of deaths set in 2010, when a severe cold snap contributed to 766 deaths.

If there’s any good news for manatees in this year’s numbers, it’s that the number of deaths attributed to collisions with boats dropped to the lowest level in at least five years, comprising only 9 percent of the total mortality.

On the downside,  more frequent episodes of toxic algal blooms may have been a big factor in this year’s mortality toll, according to environmental watchdogs, who chastised state officials for not doing more to protect water quality.

Altogether, the 829 deaths comprise about 17 percent of the state’s total population of the endangered marine mammals. There were 276 red tide-related manatee deaths in 2013, almost as many as for the previous eight years combined and more than 60 percent above the previous record for red tide-related deaths of 151 back in 1996.

Algal blooms are a natural and seasonal occurrence, but can be intensified by pollution — especially nutrient loading, such as from agricultural and human wastes. Coastal water pollution is on the increase in Florida which when combined with rising sea water temperatures create ideal conditions for red tides.

“This hike in manatee mortality seems to be the product of systemic environmental irresponsibility,” said Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former water quality enforcement attorney for the state Department of Environmental Protection, pointing out that the state has been vigorously resisting tougher water pollution. At the same time, the state has cut budgets and staff for most of its environmental programs.

As a result, basic regulation for waste-water discharges and enforcement against water pollution violations have completely broken down in the State of Florida,” Phillips said.

Manatees may not be the only marine wildlife bearing the brunt of diminished water quality. More than 115 manatees died this year from an as yet undiagnosed illness in Indian River Lagoon, a major manatee haven. The disease also appears to be killing dolphins, pelicans and other wildlife in the Atlantic-facing inlet.

“Manatees appear to be dying in a perfect storm of human neglect,” Phillips said. If the quality of Florida’s coastal waters continues its downward spiral, there will not only be fewer manatees but a lot fewer tourists no matter how cold it gets up North.”

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