Almost every morning at Blue Spring State Park in Florida, Cora Berchem’s hand counts thewho flock there in winter for hot water.
âWe’ve had days here where we’ve had over 600 manatees,â Berchem, who works for the nonprofit Save the Manatee, told CBS News environmental correspondent Ben Tracy.
She is known most by name because of their distinctive scars caused by the propellers of boats.
âTheyâre like family, you know, theyâre like returning family,â she said.
Berchem now fears that many of them will not survive. Manatees have starved to death – their bones have even washed up on shore – as zoos and places like SeaWorld scramble to save emaciated marine mammals.
âAfter losing hundreds of manatees to famine, this has never happened before,â said Patrick Rose, executive director of Save the Manatee.
He said famine is the main cause of a drastic increase in the number of manatee deaths.
More than 1,000 of them have died so far this year, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. That’s more than any year in the state’s history, according to the commission. It’s especially gloomy given that there are only about 6,000 manatees in all of Florida’s waters, according to Save the Manatee.
âA lot of those manatees that eventually died of starvation, their organs were really damaged,â Rose said. “It was truly an excruciating death.”
More than half of the manatees died in the Indian River Lagoon, which stretches over 150 miles along Florida’s east coast. The reason they are starving is because their food is disappearing.
Manatees are vegetarians and often referred to as sea cows because they eat a lot of sea grasses, over 100 pounds per day. But for ten years now, the herbaria have been disappearing. This is because of the man-made water pollution caused by Florida’s development boom, mainly sewage from septic systems and fertilizer runoff from neighboring farms.
This has helped fuel a recent series of algae “in Florida. They obscure the water and block the sun, killing seagrass beds. Manatees have a hard time finding food.
âWe think we’re just at the tipping point,â said Dennis Hanisak, a researcher at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.
The institute is experimenting with growing seagrass in large reservoirs, then transplanting them into the lagoon in an attempt to restore some of the lost seagrass beds.
Hanisak said between 60% and 80% of the lagoon’s seagrass beds have been lost.
By some estimates, repairing the huge lagoon will require $ 5 billion and much stricter pollution rules. So for now, desperate animal welfare organizations have even resorted to manually feeding manatees with romaine lettuce.
More than 130 manatees have been rescued this year and have slowly regained their health.
A manatee, Anastasia, had lost much of her body weight, but by October she was strong enough to be released.
Berchem said humans caused this problem and we need to fix it.
âIt won’t be a quick fix,â she said. “I firmly believe that if we all work together and do our part, we can always make a difference.”