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Florida and federal wildlife agencies team up as manatee deaths top 1,000

State and federal wildlife agencies have set up a joint team as they continue to respond to an alarming number of manatee deaths in Florida and as waters start to get colder for the lumbering sea cows.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Thursday announced a Joint Incident Management Team to respond to the “unusual mortality event” along the state’s Atlantic coast, including in the Indian River Lagoon.

“We take this situation seriously and are committed to working with our partners including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to explore short-term solutions to the die-off, as well as much-needed long-term solutions to restoring the lagoon ecosystem,” Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Chairman Rodney Barreto said in a prepared statement.

The state agency this week reported 1,003 manatees have died in Florida waters in 2021, more than 10 percent of the estimated population of manatees in the state waters.

Nearly two-thirds of the deaths have occurred along the East Coast, and most were recorded during the first four months of the year. The previous high for a year was 830 in 2013.

Last year, the state recorded 637 manatees deaths.

The main cause of the deaths has been starvation, as seagrass beds that are prime foraging areas for manatees in the Indian River Lagoon have declined because of repeated algae blooms over the past decade. The state estimates that 58 percent of the seagrasses have been lost in the northern Indian River Lagoon.

The state budget for the current fiscal year includes $8 million for manatee habitat restoration efforts.

In October, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced it was asking legislators for nearly $7 million next fiscal year, as wildlife officials scramble to address Florida’s degraded waters.

In the new funding request, the commission is asking for $3 million to restore and enhance lakes, rivers, springs and estuarine habitats and $2.95 million to expand the Manatee Critical Care Network. Another $717,767 is being sought to increase manatee-rescue efforts, a request that includes two full-time positions.

Lawmakers will consider the request during the 2022 legislative session, which will start in January.

On Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis rolled out a $1.51 billion proposal for environmental spending that included $175 million for targeted water quality improvements and $35 million to increase water-quality monitoring and to combat algae blooms.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried has asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list threatened manatees as “endangered.” She has described as “misguided” a March 2017 decision to reclassify manatees as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The federal agency in 2017 pointed to an increase in the manatee population and habitat improvements because of conservation efforts by Florida, Puerto Rico, Caribbean nations and public and private organizations. Until that time, manatees had been listed as endangered for a half century.

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