Wildlife officials who have scrambled to keep manatees from starving to death this winter hope Florida’s East Coast has seen its last cold snap of the year, bringing an end to the latest surge in the continuing die-off.
As of March 11, at least 420 manatees had been found dead in Florida, according to the state’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. That was short of last year’s total through the same date, 456, but nearly double the 5-year average for the time period (which was already inflated by last year’s high death count).
An estimated 1,101 manatees died in 2021, Florida’s worst year on record.
The counts cover all causes of death, not just starvation, which has driven the unprecedented die-off since late 2020.
The epicenter of the ongoing crisis is a section of the Indian River Lagoon in Brevard County, where manatees gather every winter to take shelter near the warm discharges from a power plant. Repeated algae blooms, fed by pollution, have killed off seagrasses in the area, leaving manatees without their main food source.
Rising water temperatures signal manatees to move away from their cold-weather homes, swimming to places where they should find more seagrass.
“We’re seeing fewer and fewer animals” gathering around a command center in the lagoon, said Tom Reinert, spokesperson for the federal and state team responding to the die-off.
Wildlife officials have taken an unorthodox route to try to save as many starving manatees as possible, feeding them lettuce as a substitute for seagrass in the lagoon. Since December, the joint response team has used 128,000 pounds of produce, almost all of it paid for by donations, said Ron Mezich, a Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission staffer overseeing the feeding trial.
The project — the likes of which has never been attempted before — may wind down soon.
“We continue to work on exit criteria,” Mezich said. “We’re getting close to finalizing that.”
After it ends, the team will keep working to rescue manatees and pick up carcasses along the East Coast. Starvation symptoms will ail the manatees even after they move on from the lagoon, scientists say, and deaths will continue for weeks or months.
Manatees are a threatened species, with a population estimated between about 7,500 and 10,300. That range was based on surveys conducted in 2015 and 2016.
After the feeding trial ends, Mezich said, wildlife experts will assess whether it worked. The goal has been to keep manatees from dying while not conditioning them to expect an unnatural food source.
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Typically, scientists do not recommend feeding wild animals because it can change their behavior. It could also be considered harassment for the public to do so, a violation of state and federal law.
If the feeding was successful, the wildlife agencies could consider a similar approach next winter. It will take years to restore seagrasses in the Indian River Lagoon, so manatees could continue to starve and die.
No matter what, the emergency response to the crisis will probably carry into next year.
“We will have to see,” Reinert said, “but it feels likely that we will have to do that again.”
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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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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.