Florida wildlife officials will feed manatees again this winter to curb die-offs

In an effort to curb the ongoing manatee die-off, Florida wildlife officials announced Wednesday that they will return to feeding the wild animals lettuce this winter to curb human-caused starvation from seagrass deprivation.

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

Biologists first suggested the feeding option last year as a temporary solution to the growing problem of chronic malnutrition, caused by decades of contaminated water in the northern Indian River Lagoon on the state’s Atlantic coast. Poor water quality there has fueled repeated blooms of sunlight-blocking algae, which seagrass needs to thrive. The lack of seagrass, over time, has caused the manatees to lose strength and weight.

“We’re going to continue with the supplemental feeding trial,” said Ron Mezich, endangered species management section leader for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, during a media call Wednesday. “As for timing, we are waiting for environmental conditions and manatees to tell us when. We are preparing logistically to settle in”.

Wildlife biologists produced approximately 100 tons of romaine and butterleaf lettuce last year during the three-month feeding trial, which ran from approximately December through March at the Florida Power & Light Cape Canaveral Clean Energy Center in Brevard County. The biologists plan to hold the feeding this year at the same location, which is a popular gathering place for manatees during cold winter days as the power plant discharges unnaturally warm water.

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% decline in seagrass cover in the Indian River Lagoon since 2009, going from 80,000 acres to just 20,000 in about a decade.

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

“You don’t want to have to feed wild populations. It’s just not a place we want to be. So we are all in the recovery of seagrass in the lagoon”, added Mezich. “This will continue to be a temporary process of feeding a wild population and we hope to be able to finish it as soon as possible.”

State and federal biologists have been mounting an experimental effort to feed manatees in the northern Indian River Lagoon since mid-December to prevent a mass hunger crisis on Florida's east coast.  This photo was taken during the feeding on January 4th.
State and federal biologists have been mounting an experimental effort to feed manatees in the northern Indian River Lagoon since mid-December to prevent a mass hunger crisis on Florida’s east coast. This photo was taken during the feeding on January 4th. [ PATRICK DOVE | TCPALM ]

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

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

This year, the goal is rising: State wildlife officials have 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 reached an agreement with an Oviedo-based farm, Duda Farm Fresh Foods Inc., to buy lettuces for 45 cents each. That shakes to about $180,000 needed in donations to feed the sea cows during the winter.

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The state told the foundation to prepare for a Dec. 1 start date, Ashton said in an interview. The feed could run through March 2023 and operate as needed when colder conditions arise and cause manatees to congregate in areas with warmer water. A small cold front is forecast for the Atlantic coast of Florida this weekend, but it is not expected to cause a large number of manatees, Mezich said.

At least 735 manatees have died as of November 4 of this year, the latest mortality data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission shows. Nearly half of all deaths this year were in Brevard County, the epicenter of the ongoing die-off. Nearly 1,000 sea cows had died by this time last year, but this year’s mortality rate remains higher than the five-year average.

Absent significant near-term improvements in water quality, feeding manatees this winter is the right thing to do, according to Pat Rose, an aquatic biologist and executive director of the Maitland-based Save the Manatee Club. But remember: it is illegal for the public to feed wild manatees.

“There is no excuse for this mortality to get to where it is. For years it was well understood that this system was undergoing serious changes with one algal bloom after another,” Rose said in an interview. But as overly skinny manatees continue to succumb to a lack of forage, feeding is a smart move, as long as other efforts, such as ecosystem restoration, continue at the same time, Rose said.

“We are so far behind in the eight ball that it will take a lot more to help these animals,” Rose said. “But we cannot allow hundreds more manatees to go through this agonizing death like others before them.”

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

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