Florida wildlife officials will be feeding manatees again this winter to reduce mortality

In an effort to slow the ongoing manatee mortality, Florida wildlife officials announced Wednesday that they will feed wild animals again this winter to curb human-caused starvation from a lack of seaweed.

It’s the second time Florida’s leading wildlife agency has implemented a feeding program after 1,100 manatees died in 2021, many from starvation or severe malnutrition.

Biologists first proposed cucumber feeding last year as a temporary solution to the worsening chronic malnutrition problem, caused by decades of water pollution in the North India River Lake on the state’s Atlantic coast. The poor water quality there has led to frequent algal blooms that block out the sun’s rays, which seaweed needs to thrive. Over time, the lack of seaweed caused the manatees to lose strength and weight.

“We will continue to experiment with supplemental feeding,” Ron Mezich, chief of endangered species management at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, said during a media call Wednesday. “In terms of time, we wait for the environmental conditions and the manatees tell us when. We prepare logistically for the setup.”

Wildlife biologists put out nearly 100 tons of lettuce and butter last year during a three-month feeding experiment, which ran roughly from December to March at the Florida Power and Light Cape Canaveral Clean Energy Center in Brevard County. The biologists plan to conduct the feeding this year at the same site, a popular meeting place for manatees during cold winter days as the abnormally warm water from the power plant drains.

But it’s also an area that has lost thousands of acres of natural seagrass beds in recent years. An August presentation from the St. Johns River Water Management District showed a 75% decrease in seagrass coverage in Indian River Lake since 2009, rising from 80,000 acres to 20,000 acres in just about a decade.

“It’s clear that what happened (in the lake) is a nutrient-based problem that caused the collapse of the seagrass,” Mecic said.

“You don’t want to have to feed wild populations. This is just not a place we want to be. So we’re all in the business of restoring the seagrass in the lake.” “This will remain a temporary operation to feed the wild population and we hope we can finish it as soon as possible.”

Federal and state biologists have been piloting efforts to feed manatees in the northern Indian River Lagoon since mid-December to stave off a mass starvation crisis on Florida's east coast.  This photo was taken during the January 4th feeding.
Federal and state biologists have been piloting efforts to feed manatees in the northern Indian River Lagoon since mid-December to stave off a mass starvation crisis on Florida’s east coast. This photo was taken during the January 4th feeding. [ PATRICK DOVE | TCPALM ]

A 90-day emergency no-entry zone for boaters around the feeding site went into effect on Tuesday, Mezich said.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which works directly with the state’s wildlife agency, raised $168,000 for the lettuce in 2021, according to spokesperson Michelle Ashton.

This year, the goal is growing: State wildlife officials told the foundation the new purchase goal is 400,000 pounds of lettuce, double what was used last year, Ashton said. In preparation for this winter, the foundation has struck a deal with an Oviedo-based farm, Duda Farm Fresh Foods Inc. , to buy heads of lettuce at 45 cents each. This vibrates to approx $180,000 in donations is requested To feed dugongs during the winter.

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Ashton said in an interview that the state has asked the foundation to prepare for the Dec. 1 start date. Feeding could continue as late as March 2023 and operate as needed when cooler conditions emerge and cause manatees to congregate in areas with warmer waters. A small cold front is expected on Florida’s Atlantic coast this weekend, Mezic said, but it’s not expected to result in large numbers of manatees gathering.

At least 735 manatees have died as of November 4 of this year, according to the latest fatality data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Nearly half of all deaths this year have been recorded in Brevard County, a continuing death epicenter. Nearly 1,000 sea cows died by this point last year, but this year’s mortality rate is now higher than the five-year average.

In the absence of any meaningful improvements in water quality in the short term, feeding manatees this winter is the right thing to do, according to Pat Rose, aquarist and executive director of the Save the Manatee Club in Maitland. But remember: It is illegal for the public to feed manatees.

“There is no excuse for this death to get the way it is. It has been well understood for years that this system is going through serious changes with one algae bloom after another,” Rose said in an interview. Feeding is a smart decision — as long as other efforts, such as ecosystem restoration, continue at the same time, Rose said.

“We’re so far from the eight-ball that it takes a lot to help these animals,” said Rose. “But we cannot allow hundreds more manatees to go through this painful death like others before them.”

Report sick or injured manatees to state wildlife officials at 888-404-3922.

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