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No lettuce for Florida manatees this winter: Experts end feeding trial after two years

Wildlife experts say there’s enough seagrass in the northern Indian River Lagoon to sustain manatees for the winter.
 
Florida wildlife biologists began feeding manatees after a record 1,100 animals died in 2021. After two winters of feeding, the state says there is enough seagrass to warrant ending the feeding trial this winter.
Florida wildlife biologists began feeding manatees after a record 1,100 animals died in 2021. After two winters of feeding, the state says there is enough seagrass to warrant ending the feeding trial this winter. [ DOUGLAS CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Dec. 4, 2023|Updated Dec. 5, 2023

For the past two winters, Florida wildlife biologists have experimented with feeding lettuce to hungry manatees along the state’s east coast in the Indian River Lagoon as the animals’ natural food source, seagrass, declined because of pollution.

This winter, though, there won’t be another feeding trial.

Wildlife experts say there are two main reasons for that decision. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, there’s enough seagrass in the Mosquito Lagoon, where manatees linger during the colder winter months. Part of the massive Indian River Lagoon, the Mosquito Lagoon stretches along Brevard and Volusia counties.

Also, there are currently no signs that manatees in this region are in a “poor or compromised body condition” due to a manatee die-off that began in 2021, the commission said in a statement. A record 1,100 animals died that year, many from starvation in a human-fueled seagrass famine.

A federally designated Unusual Mortality Event is still underway for manatees on the Atlantic coast, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in October the agency is reviewing whether manatees should be reclassified as an endangered species.

Sarah Barrett, assistant section head of imperiled species management with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, opens a cooler filled with lettuce to be fed to manatees at Florida Power & Light's Cape Canaveral Clean Energy Center near Cocoa in February 2022.
Sarah Barrett, assistant section head of imperiled species management with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, opens a cooler filled with lettuce to be fed to manatees at Florida Power & Light's Cape Canaveral Clean Energy Center near Cocoa in February 2022. [ PATRICK DOVE | TCPALM ]

The decision to discontinue feeding comes after state wildlife experts met with staff from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and reviewed data from the previous two winters, according to the Florida wildlife commission.

“After careful consideration, the agencies are not providing manatees with a supplemental food source at the beginning of the winter season,” reads the announcement from Florida wildlife experts. “However, staff developed a contingency plan for supplemental feeding which they will implement if needed.”

Patrick Rose, an aquatic biologist and executive director of Save the Manatee Club, said he supports the decision to end the feeding trial, but added that there needs to be regular monitoring to ensure manatees in the Indian River Lagoon are staying healthy.

“There’s much more vegetation available than there was at the worst part of the Unusual Mortality Event. But there’s still a long ways to go for the system to be fully recovered,” Rose said in a Monday interview.

“By no means is the Mosquito Lagoon in great shape,” Rose said. “But it’s not at a point where it would be appropriate to continue the supplemental feeding.”