Florida manatee deaths are way up this year, and experts point to COVID-19 as a factor


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Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic the phrase “nature is healing” has been a common and often false signal that animals are somehow making a comeback, and one species that’s apparently worse off is the Florida manatee.

According to public mortality records from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, manatee deaths have risen by 20 percent from April to May compared to last year. While natural causes are often the leading source of death for manatees, as well as things like cold stress, and perinatal death, another major contributor is boat impacts, and environmentalists say COVID-19 has caused a significant increase in these numbers.

“There are several troubling factors coming together during the pandemic,” said Save the Manatee Club’s Patrick Rose to The Guardian.

“Manatees were already facing accelerated habitat loss, rising fatalities from boat collisions and less regulatory protection. With Covid, we’re seeing manatees at an increased risk, both from policies that undermine environmental standards and from irresponsible outdoor activity, such as boaters ignoring slow-speed zones.”

Rose and others also argue that Florida has witnessed a massive spike in boater traffic since waterways reopened, as well as everything that comes with it: reckless behavior, destroyed grass beds, and trash. Because of COVID-19, there’s also been a decrease in guided, supervised tours, which can often help regulate and monitor fragile manatee areas.

Florida has witnessed 329 manatee deaths so far this year, and it's believed that at least 30 are related to watercraft collisions. For comparison's sake, Florida recorded 606 manatee deaths in 2019, and 136 were believed to be boat-related.

But experts believe this year's boat-related manatee deaths may be a lot worse than what’s known.

Due to necropsy restrictions during COVID-19, many of these manatee deaths on the FWC site have yet to be labeled with an exact cause of death.

“We suspect there were many more manatees killed by boating than we could determine,” said Rose to the publication.

So far, 54 manatees have died in Tampa Bay this year, says the FWC. By county, 8 manatees deaths have been recorded in Pinellas, 14 in Hillsborough, 15 in Manatee, 7 in Sarasota, and 10 in Citrus.

Florida’s manatee population has more than doubled in the past 20 years, and because of this population boom, the Department of the Interior reclassified them from endangered to threatened in 2017, citing habit improvements. But deaths have also jumped. 2019 was the worst year on record for Florida manatee deaths, and it looks like we may break another record this year.

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