Unseasonably warm winter weather has staved off manatee deaths so far this year, but state and federal wildlife officials warn fatalities could start surging again as a cold front rolls in.
Meanwhile, state rehabilitation facilities are struggling to keep up with the number of sick manatees since last year’s unprecedented die-off.
A record 1,101 manatees died in 2021 — the most deaths in a year since 830 manatees in 2013 — and officials have long feared that toll will grow this winter.
Leaders from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service discussed the state’s manatee crisis in an online news conference Thursday. The two agencies established a joint unit last year to enhance response efforts, which includes rescuing and relocating sick manatees and removing dead carcasses, said Conservation Commission Capt. James Bonds, co-commander of the joint effort.
Officials said an expected cold front and the ongoing lack of a food source is expected to result in more sick or dead manatees in coming weeks.
State and federal wildlife officials believe many manatees starved last year around the northern Indian River Lagoon, where they shelter in the winter near the warm discharges from a power plant. That area has been severely damaged by algal blooms, which draw fuel from pollution. Where manatees once feasted upon lush beds of seagrass, the seafloor is now barren.
Manatees suffering from malnutrition are also susceptible to cold stress, a condition that can occur when temperatures drop below 68 degrees, presenting itself through symptoms such as visible abscesses, unresolved sores, and bleaching on skin.
The agencies rescued 159 manatees last year, 115 of which were taken to rehabilitation, said Andy Garrett, who is leading the rescue and recovery branch of the joint effort. Manatee rehabilitation facilities are currently at or near capacity, as some manatees rescued last year were so sick that they have yet to recover.
“Some of these animals are coming in in a really bad state,” Garrett said. “They need long term care that takes months or a year.”
Florida has 11 in-state manatee rehabilitation facilities and also sends sick manatees to facilities in Ohio and Texas. SeaWorld Florida on Thursday held 35 manatees and is still making space for more, Garrett said.
Officials also updated their efforts to hand feed lettuce to manatees in the northern Indian River Lagoon since mid-December. In recent weeks, the warm temperatures have kept manatees from gathering in huge numbers by the warm water near the power plant where the joint team is set up, said Ron Mezich, the joint effort’s provisioning branch chief.
Hand-feeding manatees “hasn’t been done before,” he said. “There’s no template to follow and we’re adapting daily.”
It takes time for manatees to recognize lettuce as food, Mezich said, up to a week while in captivity or rehabilitation. It could take even longer in the wild, when the same manatees are not returning to eat each day.
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The field response team has been feeding the lettuce in a variety of ways, either by floating it on the surface or submerging it in water. But staffers also have to pick up as much uneaten lettuce from the water as possible. Decomposing foods can release unwanted nutrients into the water, Mezich said.
It is both illegal and harmful for the public to feed manatees lettuce on their own, said Tom Reinert, spokesperson for the joint effort. A better way to support the animals would be to donate to the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida’s Marine Animal Fund, he said.
Boaters should continue to watch out for manatees during the current crisis, Reinert said, to make sure they don’t add to the death toll. Watercraft collision are still one of the main causes of manatee deaths in Florida, and at least 103 lost their lives to crashes last year.
Boaters should be mindful of speed zones and wear polarized sunglasses, he said, which improves vision and will hep them spot manatees in the water.
See a manatee in need?
Anyone who sees a manatee in distress — sick, injured, entangled, orphaned, dying or dead — should report it immediately to the state’s Wildlife Alert Hotline at 1-888-404-3922.
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Red Tide coverage
Tampa Bay has Red Tide questions. Here are some answers.
Is it safe to eat seafood? Here’s how Red Tide affects what you eat.
Can I go fishing? The state is limiting saltwater fishing.
Piney Point: The environmental disaster may be fueling Red Tide.
Red Tide resources
• If you see an injured or sick manatee, call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-3922.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has a website that tracks where Red Tide is detected.
• Florida Poison Control Centers have a toll-free 24/7 hotline to report illnesses, including from exposure to Red Tide: 1-800-222-1222
• To report dead fish for clean-up in Tampa Bay, call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 1-800-636-0511 or file a fish kill report online.
• In St. Petersburg, call the Mayor’s Action Center at 727-893-7111 or use St. Petersburg’s seeclickfix website.
• Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the county’s tourism wing, runs an online beach dashboard at www.beachesupdate.com.
How to stay safe near the water
• Do not swim around dead fish.
• Those with chronic respiratory problems should be careful and stay away from places with a Red Tide bloom. Leave if you think Red Tide is affecting you.
• Do not harvest or eat mollusks or distressed and dead fish from the area. Fillets of healthy fish should be rised with clean water, and the guts thrown out.
• Pet owners should keep their animals away from the water and from dead fish.
• Residents living near the beach should close their windows and run air conditioners with proper filters.
• Beachgoers can protect themselves by wearing masks.
Source: Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County