An unprecedented attempt to prevent manatees from starving by feeding them lettuce in the Indian River Lagoon is set to end Friday, a Florida wildlife official announced.
Scientists say manatees are moving away from the area around the feeding site, where they find refuge each winter in warm discharges from a power plant. That trend should continue as air and water temperatures rise, said Ron Mezich, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission staffer in charge of the feeding effort.
At least 441 manatees had died through March 18, according to the state wildlife agency. That far exceeds normal rates but is less than the 537 deaths recorded through the same time period last year, when the starvation crisis exploded. The count covers all causes of death, such as manatees being hit by boats, not just starvation.
An estimated 1,101 manatees died in Florida in 2021, the worst year on record.
Researchers say the manatees are suffering because they cannot find enough seagrass to eat in a part of the Indian River Lagoon off Brevard County that has been decimated by algae blooms.
The feeding trial is one aspect of an emergency response involving both the state and federal government. Rescue workers are trying to find and help as many sick manatees as possible along the East Coast.
Feeding teams have given the animals 193,000 pounds of lettuce since December, Mezich said during a news conference Wednesday. Donations to the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida have covered almost all of the $105,000 bill for produce.
Researchers still do not know whether or how many manatees might have been saved by the lettuce. Over the coming months, they will continue to track the animals’ behavior and try to determine how effective the feeding effort was.
Scientists tell people not to feed wildlife because it can sicken animals or cause them to expect an unnatural food source. The same goes for manatees, and trying to feed them as a member of the public might be considered harassment, which is illegal.
Mezich said the feeding could continue if an unexpected cold snap drifts over Florida, but the near-term forecast looks good.
Wildlife officials expect they will need to make similar accommodations next year. The damage to the lagoon’s seagrass beds is not easily reversible. Restoring the ecosystem will require major water quality improvements.
Until that happens, Florida’s manatees could face more hard winters.
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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.