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Florida feeds manatees up to 20,000 pounds of lettuce a week as deaths rise

The starvation crisis persists in the Indian River Lagoon as officials try experimental feeding to save manatees.
State and federal biologists have been mounting an experimental effort to feed manatees in the Indian River Lagoon since mid-December to stave off a mass starvation crisis on Florida's East Coast. This photo was taken earlier this winter.
State and federal biologists have been mounting an experimental effort to feed manatees in the Indian River Lagoon since mid-December to stave off a mass starvation crisis on Florida's East Coast. This photo was taken earlier this winter. [ PATRICK DOVE/TCPALM ]
Published Feb. 9|Updated Feb. 10

Wildlife officials are trucking in 20,000 pounds of Florida-grown lettuce a week to feed starving manatees in the Indian River Lagoon, hoping to lessen the toll of an ongoing, historic die-off.

The produce has cost about $18,000 since December, said Sarah Barrett, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission staffer involved in the experimental feeding trial. Donations from the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida have covered most of the cost, she said. The pace of the operation has accelerated since Jan. 20, when manatees started eating the lettuce.

Scientists call that day a breakthrough in their efforts to feed and save manatees this winter — but more animals are turning up sick or dead around the epicenter of the crisis, Brevard County, and beyond.

Related: Want to help Florida’s manatees? Don’t feed them yourself.

The Conservation Commission’s most recent mortality count showed 97 manatees had been found dead across Florida as of Jan. 28, well above the average for that period before the die-off began in 2020. The state had logged 20 manatee rescues as of Feb. 4. Mortality statistics are published once a week, and those numbers had not been updated Wednesday morning.

The death toll will climb in the next update, said Tom Reinert, a spokesperson for the joint response team on the manatee crisis, a collaboration between the Conservation Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In just the last week, the state said, emaciated manatees have been rescued in Satellite Beach, Riviera Beach and Port Everglades.

Manatees are starving because they do not have enough seagrass to eat in a section of the Indian River Lagoon, which is a typical wintering spot near the warm discharges of a power plant. Algal blooms — fueled by pollution — have devastated the ecosystem, killing tens of thousands of acres of seagrasses where the animals once fed without major issue.

Though that area is at the core of the die-off, Reinert said the latest rescues show why scientists are concerned about all of Florida’s East Coast.

Manatees traveling north or south stop in the lagoon, he said, and manatees that typically shelter there could move elsewhere to look for food. But starvation is hard to reverse, and a malnourished manatee could struggle after it leaves, turning up ill or dying on another part of the coast.

So far, wildlife agencies are only feeding manatees at a single command center on the Indian River Lagoon. A spokesperson for the joint response team said anywhere from 50 to 800 manatees have shown up there, depending on weather.
So far, wildlife agencies are only feeding manatees at a single command center on the Indian River Lagoon. A spokesperson for the joint response team said anywhere from 50 to 800 manatees have shown up there, depending on weather. [ PATRICK DOVE | TCPALM ]
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So far, the wildlife agencies are only feeding manatees at a single command center on the lagoon. Reinert said anywhere from 50 to 800 manatees have shown up there, depending on weather.

Officials are not ready to declare the experimental feeding trial a victory or to expand it yet. Nothing like this has been attempted before.

“We’ve only been feeding manatees for a couple of weeks now,” Reinert said. “Just getting them to eat was a minor success.” He said it is “way too soon to tell” whether the lettuce has lowered death or rescue rates.

Related: A record 1,101 Florida manatees died in 2021. When will it end?

Florida in 2021 counted more than 1,000 manatee deaths, the worst year on record.

Repairing damage to the Indian River Lagoon will take years. Seagrass will not regrow overnight, and the health of the environment will depend on people lowering pollution.

“I believe we’ll probably have to do this again next winter,” Reinert said of the government’s emergency response.

“If we can stave off starvation for a handful of animals ... every one that stays out in the wild is a success to me.”

• • •

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.

• • •

Tips for viewing manatees safely

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission instructs people to not touch, chase or, yes, feed manatees. You could be harassing them — and breaking the law. If you encounter manatees in the wild, give them space. Do not make a lot of noise or splash if one surfaces near you; doing so can scare them.

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