‘It’s heartbreaking’: What’s being done to curb record manatee deaths

ORLANDO, Fla. — More manatees died this year in Florida than ever before.

It’s one of the biggest environmental crises in the state as wildlife leaders try to help stop the sea cows from starving to death.

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“It’s heartbreaking,” said Cora Berchem, with Save the Manatee Club. “We have never seen anything like we’ve seen this year.”

In 2021, more than 1,000 manatees have died in Florida. The number one cause of death was starvation, above boating accidents, entanglements and cold stunning.

READ: Manatee feeding program ready as winter tests survival

“We clearly see manatees that were so emaciated that you could see their rib bones, you could see their skull,” Berchem said. “That’s not how a manatee should look.”

John Peterson, the vice president of zoological operations at SeaWorld, said a lack of seagrass is the largest contributing factor to those starvation deaths.

Photos: Manatee, calf released near Blue Spring State Park after months of rehabilitation

In response, he said SeaWorld is helping rescue and rehabilitate the starving sea cows at their 5-acre rehabilitation facility before it’s too late.

“It takes months to get them back to positive energy and gain weight and get them where they need to be. And then where do you return them? There’s no food,” Peterson said.

WATCH: 9 facts about manatees

Peterson uses a manatee named Matthew as a poster child for the troubles manatees are facing.

Matthew was an orphaned calf rescued in 2016. The crew at SeaWorld hand-raised him and then released him in Brevard County in 2020.

“In his 18 months out he went out and lost almost 600 pounds,” Peterson said. “Because there’s no food.”

READ: FWC investigating after more than 1K manatees died this year

Matthew needed help again, so SeaWorld saved him once more. If they hadn’t, the team said Matthew would likely be gone.

“We’ve literally polluted the system to a point where manatees can no longer survive,” Berchem said.

That’s why seagrass replanting is ongoing, and waterway clean-ups are ramping up. The state legislature is allocating money to save the manatees and officials have started an unprecedented experiment feeding manatees along the Atlantic coast.

“I wish it would have never had to come to the point where we literally lose 1,000 manatees for people to wake up,” Berchem said. “It’s not just manatees, it’s really a whole ecosystem that’s being degraded.”

Peterson said it’s a 10 to 12-year issue, hopefully with healing on the horizon.

“This really is a marathon, it’s not a sprint,” Berchem said.

READ: Wildlife officials brainstorming how to prevent record-number manatee deaths

Wildlife officials want to remind you it is illegal to feed the manatees. The best way to help is by donating or volunteering with organizations like Save the Manatee Club, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, SeaWorld and others who have made it their mission to change the lives of manatees.

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Sarah Wilson

Sarah Wilson, WFTV.com

Sarah Wilson joined WFTV Channel 9 in 2018 as a digital producer after working as an award-winning newspaper reporter for nearly a decade in various communities across Central Florida.