TAMPA, Fla — It's a make-or-break time for Florida's iconic state marine mammal after 1,101 manatees died in the state in 2021.
Patrick Rose, the executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, never became numb to the pain resulting from each death.
"You get really mad because we warned over and over, these problems were here," he said.
But as a new year begins, Rose isn't looking back. His sights are set on solutions: Restoring manatee habitats, securing the seagrass they depend on for food and improving water quality in waterways statewide.
"It literally could be too late if we don't address it now," Rose said. "There still is time. We can do something about it, but we have to act, and we have to act seriously and make the sacrifices necessary so that the future in Florida can be a healthy one for our aquatic resources and our tourists."
In 2022, he says ordinary Floridians can and should do more. Rose says they can opt to fertilize their lawns less during the rainy season, if at all. They can also keep an eye out for sick and injured manatees and report any they see to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
"There have been 159 manatees that were rescued last year, and a significant number of those were reported by boaters, so we really need them to continue to be a part of the solution," Rose said.
He says boaters can also continue to take precautions on the water, both in and out of manatee protection zones.
"Because most of the waters that manatees are going to be in are not regulated, we need them to do more," he said.
While many of last year's manatee deaths were caused by starvation and other issues related to water quality, more than a hundred were killed by boat strikes.
Rose says ordinary Floridians can also urge elected leaders to take bigger, more transformative steps, like putting manatees back on the Endangered Species List.
"If it could be done through Congress — normally we wouldn't like to see that happen, but in this case, it would be righting a major wrong that occurred in 2017," Rose said, referencing the decision in March 2017 to upgrade manatees as a "threatened" species.
Rose says efforts to save the manatee can also be bolstered by the state budget. In particular, he would like to see better funding for the FWC to allow for more manatee-related research and necropsies.
Most importantly, he hopes both state lawmakers and local leaders will set aside more funding for projects that will improve water quality since those issues contributed to the loss of seagrass, red tide and many of the 1,101 deaths.
"By getting the federal government, through EPA, engaged, we believe we have a better chance of doing that for the entire state aquatic resources," he said. "It's okay to grow, but when we keep mortgaging our future by not growing sustainably and putting too much nutrients into our waterways, then we are going to just continue to have problems."
Rose, however, is optimistic and thinks the state can come together to save the iconic species. He points to the cooperation that produced a successful restoration of Kings Bay, a critical wintertime manatee habitat in Crystal River.
"We have to put aside our differences, whether they're political or otherwise, and look at what is in the best interest for all of us in the future of Florida," Rose said.
This story was originally published by Chad Mills on Scripps station WFTS in Tampa, Florida.