In an effort to slow an ongoing manatee die-off, Florida wildlife officials announced Wednesday they will once again feed the wild animals lettuce this winter to curb starvation from a human-caused lack of seagrass.
It’s the second time Florida’s leading wildlife agency will carry out the feeding program after a record 1,100 manatees died in 2021, many from starvation or severe malnourishment.
Biologists first suggested the feeding option last year as a temporary fix to the intensifying chronic malnutrition problem, wrought by decades of polluted water in the northern Indian River Lagoon on the state’s Atlantic coast. Poor water quality there has fueled repeated algal blooms that block sunlight, which seagrass needs to thrive. The lack of seagrass has, over time, caused manatees to lose strength and weight.
“We are going to continue the supplemental feeding trial,” said Ron Mezich, an imperiled species management section leader with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, during a media call Wednesday. “Time-wise, we’re waiting for the environmental conditions and the manatees to tell us when. We are logistically getting ready to set up.”
Wildlife biologists put out roughly 100 tons of butterleaf and romaine lettuce last year over the three-month feeding trial, which ran roughly from December to March at the Florida Power & Light Cape Canaveral Clean Energy Center in Brevard County. Biologists plan to carry out the feeding this year at the same location, which is a popular meeting spot for manatees during cold winter days as unnatural warm water is discharged from the power plant.
But it’s also an area that’s lost thousands of acres of natural seagrass beds in recent years. An August presentation from the St. Johns River Water Management District showed a 75% decline in seagrass coverage in the Indian River Lagoon since 2009, spiraling from 80,000 acres to just 20,000 in about a decade.
“It’s clear that what has happened (in the lagoon) is a nutrient-based issue that caused the collapse of seagrass,” Mezich said.
“You don’t want to have to feed wild populations. That’s just not somewhere where we want to be. So we’re all in on recovery of seagrasses in the lagoon,” Mezich added. “This will remain a temporary process of feeding a wild population and we hope we can end it as soon as possible.”
A 90-day emergency no-entry zone for boaters around the feeding site went into effect Tuesday, Mezich said.
The Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida, which works directly with the state wildlife agency, raised $168,000 to purchase the lettuce in 2021, according to spokesperson Michelle Ashton.
This year, the target is increasing: State wildlife officials told the foundation the new purchase goal is 400,000 pounds of lettuce, double what was used last year, Ashton said. In preparation for this winter, the foundation has worked out a deal with an Oviedo-based farm, Duda Farm Fresh Foods Inc., to buy heads of lettuce at 45 cents each. That shakes out to about $180,000 needed in donations to feed sea cows through the winter.
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The state told the foundation to be prepared for a Dec. 1 start date, Ashton said in an interview. The feeding could run as late as March 2023 and operate as needed when colder conditions emerge and cause manatees to congregate in areas with warmer water. A small cold front is forecast for Florida’s Atlantic coast this weekend, but it’s not expected to lead to large numbers of manatees gathering, Mezich said.
At least 735 manatees died through Nov. 4 this year, the latest Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission mortality data show. Nearly half of all deaths this year were recorded in Brevard County, the epicenter of the ongoing die-off. Almost 1,000 sea cows had died by this point last year, but the death rate this year is still higher now than the five-year average.
Absent any meaningful water quality improvements in the short term, feeding manatees this winter is the right thing to do, according to Pat Rose, an aquatic biologist and executive director of the Maitland-based Save the Manatee Club. But remember: It’s illegal for the public to feed wild manatees.
“There is no excuse for this die-off to get to where it is. It was well-understood for years that this system was undergoing serious changes with one algal bloom after another,” Rose said in an interview. But as overly thin manatees continue to succumb to a lack of forage, feeding is a smart decision — so long as other efforts, like ecosystem restoration, continue at the same time, Rose said.
“We are so far behind the eight-ball that it’s going to take so much more to help these animals,” Rose said. “But we can’t just allow hundreds more manatees to go through this agonizing death like others before them.”
Report sick or injured manatees to state wildlife officials at 888-404-3922.