More than 800 manatees dead so far this year, Florida wildlife officials say

More than 800 manatees have died so far this year, a sharp increase from last year, sparking concern for the federally threatened species.

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The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission released a preliminary report Monday indicating 811 manatee deaths, more than 10% of the population, from Jan. 1 to June 18, WFLA reported.

There were 637 total deaths across the state last year.

Wildlife officials in May blamed the increase on an unusual mortality event for the increase, citing lack of food availability as a primary cause. Experts worry the die-off could top 1,000 by the end of the year.

“It’s a sequence of events where too much nutrients led to harmful algae blooms, which shaded the seagrasses, caused the seagrasses to die, that reduced the forage available for manatees over many different years of decline,” Patrick Rose, executive director of Save The Manatee Club, told WFLA.

Manatees are a protected species by the state and federal governments.

In 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reclassified manatees from endangered to threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The change marked a rebound for the oft-loved sea cows that were first listed as endangered in 1973 when only a few hundred remained. There are an estimated 6,500 manatees in the southeastern U.S., according to federal wildlife officials. State officials estimate the population at around 7,500.

“Florida manatees are considered one of the state’s keystone species whose behavior can alert researchers to the environmental and habitat changes that may otherwise go unnoticed in Florida’s waterways for extended periods of time,” state wildlife officials said.