TALLAHASSEE — Manatees are dying by the hundreds on Florida’s east coast from algae blooms and other contaminants, a wildlife official said Tuesday to a House committee.

The Indian River Lagoon, which runs 156 miles long, and its surrounding areas have seen the end of seagrass. According to Melissa Tucker, Director of the Division of Habitat and Species Conservation, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, seagrass thrives in clean, sandy water. However, the water has become murkier due to the presence of algae and other pollutants.

Tucker stated to the House State Affairs Committee that “our statewide death count has been higher from all sources than it’s ever before been reported.” This is a problem of starvation. Manatees don’t have enough seagrasses.

Officials observed a sharp increase in the number of manatee deaths between December and May as sea cows congregate at warm waters. Tucker stated that 677 manatees were killed in this period when they normally only lose 156.

Manatee mortality has declined since May, when the animals extend their range in summer, fall and winter. However, the state has now recorded 968 deaths of manatees in 2021 with over two months remaining in the year. Tucker stated that the previous record was 830 manatee deaths in 2013.

In the past, manatee deaths have been attributed more to temporary events such as algae blooms or unusually cold temperatures. However, Tucker stated that it could take longer for the seagrass problem to be reversed. She said that efforts are being made to replant the seagrass and restore the oyster and clam beds, so that the mollusks can filter the water.

She said, “This is something we’re going be trying to manage over the course of many years and possibly decades.”

Republican State Rep. Thad Alman, who represents Brevard County where manatees thrive, stated that it would be difficult to regenerate the seagrass if the water is not cleared up. He stated that manatees now eat seagrass roots, permanently destroying aquatic plants.

Altman stated, “We literally have the catastrophe on our hands.”