Only four years ago, Manatees, the gentle, lumbering giants of the sea, were taken off the list of endangered species. In a dramatic and alarming turn, the West Indian manatee is now dying at a record rate.
In 2021, Florida wildlife officials made a grim announcement: Ten percent of the state’s manatees had died in just one year. That’s an unusually high death rate, and it comes after an increase in population that had been hailed as a conservation success.
What is Killing the Manatees?
Scientists think it may have been a deadly combination of harmful algae blooms and pollution that has caused a dramatic decline in seagrass, the Manatee’s primary food source. As their food supply dwindles, manatees are forced to turn to less nutritious sources of sustenance or starve.
Algae blooms have been on the rise in Florida because of pollution in the water and the warming of the oceans. The algae blooms can produce toxins that harm manatees and other marine animals, but they also damage seagrass. Researchers have found that as the algae blooms grow and the grass dies off, oxygen levels in the water drop, creating what’s known as a dead zone.
Dead zones are areas where there’s too little oxygen in the water to support most marine life. They’re caused by pollution, high levels of nutrients, and mainly, climate change. If the algae blooms and dead zones continue, the manatee population could spiral further downward, bringing the species back to the endangered list.
Seagrass: The Manatee’s Lifeline
Seagrass is the manatee’s main source of food. It’s also a marine habitat for crabs, shrimp, fish, and other underwater animals. Seagrass meadows are the most productive and diverse ecosystems on the planet. They’re sensitive to pollution, so anything that harms seagrass, harms the manatees, as well as thousands of other marine animals that depend on it for food and shelter.
Seagrass is one of the most threatened habitats on the planet. In the last decade, scientists recorded a dramatic decline in the amount of seagrass in the world’s oceans, which won’t just hurt the manatee, but all life, humans included.
The Role of Seagrass in Climate Change
Seagrass was once the dominant plant along Florida’s coasts and even into the Atlantic Ocean. But decades of pollution and other human activities have destroyed most of it. Years of dredging, filling in wetlands, and rerouting water to control flooding, along with pollution and runoff, are the biggest culprits. Destruction of seagrass meadows is also linked to climate change and warming ocean temperatures.
Warming waters caused by climate change and runoff from agricultural fields is the biggest threat to seagrass. As the waters get warmer, seagrass dies off, leaving less and less food for the manatees. Florida’s manatees are now starving to death, and their numbers have plummeted.
Climate Change Could Make the Problem Worse
The West Indian manatee, the Amazonian manatee, and the African manatee each still face “a high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future,” according to the IUCN.
Manatees are considered keystone species, meaning they play an important role in their ecosystems. They eat sea plants and algae, keeping the ecosystems healthy and thriving. Pollution and climate change are dangerous for all species, but they could be especially devastating for the manatee.
As the oceans warm and become more acidic, they become more dangerous to the manatee’s sensitive skin. In the past, manatees have moved to warmer waters to escape the cold, but as the water gets warmer, there may be nowhere for them to go.
The manatee is also at risk from climate change’s other effects. Scientists have found a link between climate change and algae blooms. As the world warms, the oceans get more acidic, and the algae grow faster. The algae can produce toxins that can kill both the seagrass and the manatees that eat it.
By protecting the manatees and seagrass, we’re protecting the oceans, as well as everything that relies on them.
What We Can Do Today, For Tomorrow
1. Make sure the government works to clean up the water, reduce runoff, and prevent the algae blooms that are killing the seagrass. Get involved with local conservation groups and tell your representatives to act on conservation matters, like enacting more slow-speed zones to protect marine life.
2. Pledge to vote for candidates who will work to protect marine life and environmental issues.
3. Live a more eco-friendly lifestyle. Commit to recycling and creating less waste, and buy less plastic, which can end up in the ocean and harm marine life. Plant-based diets, like the diet the manatee follows, can help combat climate change and food shortages.
4. Spread the word by sharing this blog post.
5. Donating to the Tomorrow Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to the conservation of manatees and the preservation of their habitat, as well as all animals’ natural habitats. Your donation will help provide food, protection, and research.