Alarming number of manatees are dying in Florida this year

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SARASOTA — An environmental watchdog group says manatees are dying at an alarming rate this year and cautions 2018 could be one of the deadliest years on record for the sea creatures.

More than 160 manatees have died in the first two months of the year — a morality rate that sets a pace to easily eclipse last year’s total of 538 manatee deaths and could surpass the all-time record of 803 deaths in 2013, national nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) warns.

So far, 166 manatees have died statewide through March 2, according to statistics by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Cold snaps in January accounted for 51 of the statewide deaths from cold-stress, state statistics show.

“Florida’s manatees are one big freeze away from an ecological disaster and need more, not less, protection,” PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said in a statement. “Manatees may join polar bears as one of the first iconic victims of extinction in the wild from climate change.”

Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties recorded three, four and six manatee deaths, respectively, according to state data. Three of the deaths in Sarasota and Manatee counties were due to cold stress, data shows.

PEER claims the biggest factor in the spike is the weather, which is nearly double the 27 cold-stress deaths from last year and more than double the five-year average for that cause of death. Severe cold spells in 2010 caused 282 manatees to die and prompted the FWC to declare the events “catastrophic.”

2018 manatee deaths in Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties through March 2:

Sarasota: 3; Manatee: 4; Charlotte: 6

Exposure to water temperatures below 68 degrees for long periods induces manatees to suffer cold-stress syndrome, which triggers weight loss, fat loss and dehydration. Juvenile manatees older than 2 are especially vulnerable to death from cold stress, when they are learning to find warm water for the first time without their mothers.PEER also is concerned red tide, or toxic algal blooms, could be contributing to the high rate of deaths. Red tide through March 2 claimed 10 manatees. Concentrations of red tide organism, Karenia brevis, were recently found in low to medium amountsaround Sarasota County beaches and low amounts in Manatee County beaches, according to state data. Manatees feed on sea grass and become poisoned if the grass is covered in the toxic algae.

Martine deWit, lead veterinarian at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s marine mammal laboratory in St. Petersburg, is not necessarily worried by the figures.

“It’s way too early to predict the deadliest year or a record year,” deWit said, adding the growing mortality numbers could be because there’s a larger population of manatees than there were 20 years ago.

The state’s manatee population has more than doubled in the past two decades to more than 6,000 manatees.

The public can help reduce manatee deaths by reporting unusual manatee behavior to FWC’s Wildlife Alert hotline by calling 888-404-FWCC.