Manatee Appreciation Day brings awareness to Floridians following record number of sea cow deaths

Every March, there is a day to not only appreciate the cute snoots of Florida's beloved sea cows but also to learn about conservation efforts to help the manatee species – especially after a record-breaking year in the number of deaths.

According to Florida wildlife officials, there have been a total of 441 manatee deaths since the start of the year. Among them, 280 occurred in Brevard County. 

This time last year, Florida reported 537 deaths. As in 2021, the vast majority of manatee deaths this year have been associated with a lack of natural seagrass, which has been depleted because of poor water quality and algae blooms. Seagrass beds are prime foraging areas for manatees.

This month, officials began winding down a pilot feeding program to reduce starvation issues that plagued Florida manatees since last year. Experts said warmer waters are helping to disperse the population to their summer habitats, lessening the strain on natural resources.

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The first of its type feeding effort was started by state and federal agencies in December because seagrass, the mammal’s natural food, was in short supply, especially in their winter habitat zones. During the four-month pilot program, it’s estimated the animals ate more than 160,000 pounds of lettuce.

As manatees are on the move, experts are pointing to concerns about boating collisions As temperatures go up, boaters are being advised to watch for slow-moving manatees that continue to die at a higher-than-normal rate, mostly because of starvation, despite the feeding program's efforts.

While watercraft are not the leading cause of death for manatees, they were tied to 103 of a record 1,101 deaths last year in Florida waters. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reports 15 deaths are connected to watercraft injuries this year.

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Florida manatees had been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1973. Manatees were listed as endangered until 2017, when they were downlisted to "threatened."

If you see a sick, injured, distressed, or dead manatee, you’re urged to call the FWC wildlife alert hotline by calling 888-404-FWCC (3922).

FWC offered boaters the following tips to help keep manatees safe:

  • Observe manatees from a distance to limit disturbance. Disturbing manatees at their warm-water sites may cause them to leave these areas during the winter.
  • Follow posted manatee protection zones.
  • Wear polarized sunglasses to spot them moving, grazing and resting in the water.
  • Keep a lookout for the circular "footprints" or ripples they leave on the surface of the water.
  • Follow manatee viewing guidelines and always observe manatees from a respectful distance.
  • Don’t feed or water manatees. Doing so is illegal and can put manatees at risk.
  • Report injured, entangled, orphaned or dead manatees to the FWC’s Wildlife Alert Hotline: 888-404-FWCC (3922), #FWC on your cellphone or text
  • Purchase a manatee decal or license plate and let your friends know how you’re helping support the FWC’s manatee conservation efforts.
  • Contribute to the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida’s Marine Mammal Fund by visiting and clicking on "Support Us," "Funding Priorities" and "Marine Mammal Fund."

LINK: For more information on FWC's efforts to protect manatees and how you can help, visit FWC's website.

FOX Weather contributed to this report