“This was bad”: 2021 record year for manatee deaths, more find treatment at Jacksonville Zoo

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — 2021 is already a record year for manatee deaths. As of Aug. 20, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission reports 920 manatees have died in Florida waters. The previous record was 830 deaths in 2013.

This alarming death rate has prompted the FWC to declare an Unusual Mortality Event.

Manatees got downgraded from an “endangered” to “threatened” status in 2016. However, Florida Reps. Vern Buchanan and Darren Soto introduced legislation last month to try and upgrade that status once again.

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Meanwhile, the Jacksonville Zoo is trying to help through its Manatee Critical Care Center, which works in collaboration with FWC and the Manatee Rescue & Rehabilitation Partnership to provide urgent care to manatees.

It’s been busier than ever.

“This was bad,” said Craig Miller, the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens curator of mammals.

“You know you can’t save them all, but we certainly try.”

Its medical pool, which celebrated its four-year anniversary just this week, is currently treating four manatees for all kinds of injuries and ailments.

Throughout its four years, the center has treated 35 patients.

However, 2021 has been the single busiest year yet, accounting for 11 out of those 35 total patients.

The manatees have suffered boat strikes, cold stress and starvation.

Even though they’re getting nourishment, Action News Jax chief meteorologist Mike Buresh explained why seagrass (or eelgrass), their natural food source, is depleting.

“It looks like it goes back to 2017 after back-to-back years with major hurricanes very near our area,” Buresh said. “Matthew in 2016 and Irma [happened] a year later, which moved up through the spine of Florida.”

“That caused seagrass to go away,” he said. “It was literally destroyed by all the water action and wave action along the St. Johns River and that left the manatees starving.”

Buresh said there are replanting efforts underway, but those can be expensive.

Miller still wants to remind everyone there are simple steps we can all take to protect manatees.

“Take care of your garbage,” he said. “Manatees are curious, and they’re eating vegetation that could have garbage.”

If you’re boating, watch for the boil that pops up next to their tail to avoid them.

“It’s kinda sad what happens to them with the boats and stuff,” said Shaun Argus, who was at the zoo photographing these gentle giants. He thinks these tips are fairly straightforward.

“It’s an easy thing to do, really. You don’t throw trash in the river. And most of the area where the boats go by, it says manatee zone where, you know, where they’re gonna be. So slow down, it can’t be that hard,” he said.

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“We’re lucky in Jacksonville that we’re in one of the areas where you can actually see them in the wild,” Argus said.

And Miller is helping make sure they make it back to the wild.

“It’s pretty amazing how resilient they can be,” Miller said. “And how well they can recover.”