Florida wildlife officials will undertake an unprecedented effort to feed manatees flocking to warm water sites this winter hoping to avert another convulsion of starvation and death.
A Wednesday announcement outlining the supplemental feeding of romaine lettuce to animals showing signs of starvation, such as protruding ribs, comes as Florida’s totem animal is already making its way to areas bereft of seagrass — its main source of food.
This year, a record-shattering 1,038 manatees have died statewide with about 75% of deaths occurring along the Atlantic coast, especially in the Indian River Lagoon where seagrasses were wiped out by algae blooms and nutrient-laden runoff.
The feeding, which will be conducted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, is one of a handful of plans to thwart another winter famine that so overwhelmed rescue organizations that manatee carcasses were towed to spill islands and left to rot.
Other initiatives include increasing the capacity of rescue tanks for manatees at places such as SeaWorld Orlando, setting up a temporary field response station in the Indian River Lagoon, and increasing the number of employees who can respond to manatee-related emergency calls.
Florida Power and Light, which hosted Wednesday’s announcement at its Manatee Lagoon in Riviera Beach, also dedicated $700,000 for manatee rescue over the next three years, including paying for a specially-outfitted manatee ambulance.
“What happened last year caught us off guard,” said FWC Assistant Executive Director Thomas Eason, who spoke at Wednesday’s event. “We were just figuring it out on the fly because we were not expecting that level of mortality.”
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Eason said recent manatee population estimates are between 7,000 and 12,000 statewide, including about 4,000 on the eastern side of the state. With 1,038 deaths since Jan. 1, that means 9% to 15% of Florida’s manatees died this year.
The annual average for manatee deaths for 2016 through 2020 is 554.
An Unusual Mortality Event was declared in late March, triggering increased federal resources. Florida lawmakers also approved $8 million this spring for manatee rescue and recovery — more than double the typical annual stipend.
“For every person the U.S. Fish and Wildlife person is putting on the effort the FWC is putting 10 people on the effort,” said Larry Williams, Fish and Wildlife Service field supervisor for the South Florida Ecological Services Office.
In 2017, the Fish and Wildlife Service downgraded the status of the manatee from endangered to threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Among the efforts this season to save the manatees from starvation, supplemental feeding is the most controversial.
Eason said the feeding plan is experimental, rigorous and “well thought out”, but also something that will happen as a last resort when animals are obviously looking skinny or show other signs of starvation. Often the nuchal fat hump on the back of their heads will waste away if they are not eating enough, creating a more sunken head shape that resembles a peanut.
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Biologists are concerned about changing manatee migration behavior and don’t want to encourage them to frequent artificial feeding spots, which FWC is hoping to keep secret and away from public view.
Also, they don’t want to introduce more harmful nutrients to the Indian River Lagoon with decomposing romaine lettuce. An adult manatee can eat 50 to 100 pounds of seagrass daily.
Save the Manatee Club supports the supplemental feeding decision but said there are drawbacks.
“Ultimately, the decision of whether to feed manatees is physiologically and logistically complicated as it is currently illegal to feed or give water to manatees,” said Save the Manatee Club Executive Director Pat Rose in a press release. “Manatees may lose their fear of people and boats as they learn to associate them with handouts, only to be harassed, injured, or killed.”
Water quality problems in the Indian River Lagoon have been known for years, are well-documented, and examined in a 2020 paper that was co-authored by Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute algae expert Brian LaPointe. The paper was published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.
Why did the manatees start starving?
A spiral of harmful algae blooms beginning in 2011 reduced the amount of light reaching the seagrasses, while, at the same time, nitrogen levels in the water got too high. Because the Indian River Lagoon does not get heavy ocean flushes, similar to the Lake Worth Lagoon, it becomes a "trap" for nutrients that are detrimental to seagrass.
Although manatees look plump, they have very little body fat and can't tolerate water temperatures below 68 degrees for prolonged periods. That's why they are found in winter months huddled in the warm-water outflows of power plants, such as at Manatee Lagoon where the outflow is about 5 to 8 degrees warmer than the ambient water.
Through November, 35 manatees died in Palm Beach County this year, a pittance compared to the numbers in Brevard and Volusia counties, but still nearly three times higher than the five-year average of deaths over an entire year.
Eason expects the heightened manatee rescue response, including supplemental feeding, will be needed for the next several years as seagrass regrows.
"Not forever," Eason said. "But restoring the habitat, assuming we continue to accelerate that, is not a year or two proposition — it's a longer-term thing."
To report a sick, injured or dead manatee, call FWC at 888-404-FWCC (3922).
Kimberly Miller is a veteran journalist for The Palm Beach Post, part of the USA Today Network of Florida. She covers weather, climate and the environment and has a certificate in Weather Forecasting from Penn State. Contact Kim at email@example.com
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Florida officials to feed manatees that are starving to death