Experts say the peaceful animals are dying in record numbers due to starvation.

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Florida reached a heartbreaking milestone in manatee deaths along the state's Atlantic coastline this week. According to data released by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) Wednesday, at least 1,003 manatees—more than 10% of the state's estimated population—have died since the start of 2021. The previous single-year record for manatee deaths, set in 2013, was 803.

State and federal leaders are now teaming up to address the record-breaking spike, which U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has declared meets the criteria of an Unusual Mortality Event (UME). To put it plainly, the situation is now officially an emergency.

A new Joint Incident Management Team will explore "both short- and long-term and small- and large-scale response options, including aquatic habitat restoration," a news release explained.

Manatee in Crystal River
Credit: Brent Durand/Getty Images

"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," FWC Chairman Rodney Barreto said in a statement.

Researchers have attributed the UME to starvation due to the lack of seagrass in Central Florida's Indian River Lagoon, which stretches along the edges of Brevard and Volusia counties. Historically, the lagoon has provided essential habitat to manatees year-round, including those who relocate from colder areas during the winter months. Decades of algal blooms caused by pollution, however, have resulted in catastrophic seagrass loss in the once verdant lagoons.

"For the first time, we've had such a large number of manatees that have literally starved to death," Pat Rose, an aquatic biologist and executive director of the non-profit Save the Manatee Club, told TCPalm. "Sadly, this is just one indication that we've had some very serious problems after decades of recovery."

FWC spokesperson Carli Segelson told TCPalm that restoring water quality in the Indian River Lagoon is the top priority of the Joint Incident Management Team.

"The goal ... continues to be restoring the Indian River Lagoon to a healthy state," she told the paper. "In the end, that is the solution that will benefit manatees and other wildlife."

If you see a dead, sick, or injured manatee, you are asked to contact the FWC's Wildlife Alert Hotline at 1-888-404-3922 or by dialing #FWC on a cellphone. For more information as well as opportunities to help, visit MyFWC.com/Manatee.