Florida manatee crisis: 3 ways wildlife agencies could better manage starving sea cows

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Florida manatee crisis: 3 ways wildlife agencies could better manage starving sea cows

A thousand dead anything is a lot. When you’re talking about manatees, chalking up 1,000 in the loss column on the spreadsheet is sheer tragedy.

In Florida’s environment, the “unusual mortality event” of 2021 claimed the lives of 1,100 manatees, largely blamed by experts on starvation. It taught us all a critically hard lesson: Lax regulations on water pollution standards leads to a loss of seagrass, the primary food source for one of America’s most beloved animals.

It became the No. 1 issue for manatee advocates, state and federal agency wildlife managers and elected officials working to protect the state’s delicate estuarine ecosystem. If we want to truly stave off extinction of these innocent creatures, there may be more managers can do before it’s too late.

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Three missing things

So we’re in a place where manatee mortality has dominated headlines for about a year. The widespread concern for the well-being of the marine mammals ultimately will be what helps save them.

To me, agencies responsible for managing manatees’ wellness — the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — could do three things to help manatees in the future: improve the annual population estimate, increase the use of satellite tracking technology and expand the mortality table.

Annual population estimate

How does one count a manatee? When it comes to the FWC, there are two ways.

A synoptic survey is a fly-over conducted on a cold day when manatees will congregate near known warm-water sites. The agency has established meteorological standards for when to conduct them and has been doing so nearly annually since 1991.

An abundance survey is a more labor intensive count, but using more observers, more airplanes and covering more of each coastline. The abundance surveys require so much effort, the agency has conducted only two.

The data produced by the two methods are similar, but different enough to warrant closer inspection. For example, the most recent synoptic survey Jan. 28-Feb. 2, 2019 counted up 5,733 manatees. For the four years previous, the estimate concluded there were more than 6,000 with a high in 2017 of 6,620.

The most recent abundance survey conducted in December 2015 and 2016 estimated 8,810 manatees with a 95% probability, but with a “real” abundance of between 7,520 and 10,280 manatees.

It’s easy to see how 1,100 dead manatees can be a concern. It means, based on these counting methods, anywhere between 10% and 19% of the population succumbed to famine. Why does an accurate count matter? Because in wildlife biology, a few percentage points in mortality could be the difference between a species rebounding from the brink of extinction or spiraling headlong into oblivion.

I understand the complexity of counting something that spends its life in waters of uncertain depth and turbidity, let alone spread across more than 2,000 miles of tidal coastline. But maybe there are other ways to help get better accuracy.

No surveys were completed in 2008, 2012, 2013 and 2020 because the weather never got cold enough to conduct a synoptic survey, according to the FWC. There was no survey in early 2021 because of COVID concerns with manatee counters. An abundance survey was begun in December 2021 on Florida’s west coast, but the data from it will not be released until the east coast survey is completed in December 2022, FWC spokesperson Carly Jones told TCPalm.

I hope the manatees can wait that long.

Satellite tracking technology

Perhaps OCEARCH has spoiled the citizen scientist. With over 430 tagged animals gallivanting across the globe, we have grown accustomed to dialing up the research organization’s website and checking in on our favorite sharks.

It’s almost too easy on our end. It makes me wonder why we can’t do this with so many more animals. Like manatees.

We can, sort of. A website named the Manatee Rehabilitation Partnership has nine manatees listed as bearing satellite tags. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which is an approved manatee rehabilitation site thanks to funds made possible by state legislators responding to the crisis last year, said it has 11 tagged manatees it monitors.

Why can’t the FWC house the information from all tagged manatees in one location? Also, why can’t we tag a few dozen more to get a good number to observe their movements? Another key would be to make that information available to the public. I doubt there would be much in the way of using that information for the wrong reasons.

I know satellite tags can run from a few hundred dollars up to a few thousand. I know the effort to tag the animals costs money. But perhaps all this funding coming the manatees’ way and organizations like Save the Manatee Club can help underwrite these efforts.

Expand the mortality table

This seems morbid, but there is some data categories missing from the FWC’s manatee mortality tables. Chiefly, a category listing starvation as a cause of death.

We have heard from officials this year that most of the manatees being identified as dead have succumbed to starvation from a lack of seagrass caused by pollution and algae blooms. Yet, the mortality table has no such listing for cause of death.

I know it’s a huge expensive and effort to collect and necropsy a dead manatee, but the table lists causes like watercraft, perinatal, natural, cold stress and the two most ambiguous: undetermined and no necropsied. Most fall into the latter column.

Maybe we need to do better in determining the cause of death so we can rule out other unseen causes. Manatees have become our 1,200 pound canaries in the coal mine of the Indian River Lagoon.

I think the agencies charged with managing the manatee need to make some adjustments. Adding tools to better help them assess when there is a serious problem and to be able to respond quickly and nimbly will be needed in future years as Florida’s human population continues to boom.

If they don’t, then they’ll have to change the name of these mortality events from “unusual” to “usual.”

Ed Killer is TCPalm’s outdoors writer. Sign up for his and other weekly newsletters at profile.tcpalm.com/newsletters/manage. Friend Ed on Facebook at Ed Killer, follow him on Twitter @tcpalmekiller or email him ated.killer@tcpalm.com.

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