Federal and state wildlife officials are racing to save manatees from starvation and avert a 2021 repeat. A total of 1,101 manatees died last year in Florida waters, 476 more than the five-year average mortality. The unusually high death toll was the result of nutrient pollution in the water, which made manatees a natural food source, seagrasses, scarce. Now, the future of Florida manatees may depend on supplemental feeding. Efforts are underway across the state to rehabilitate starving manatees, using hydroponically grown lettuce. The work of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is designed to support the survival of one of Florida’s most iconic and endangered wildlife species. As a new approach to the species, it has its pros and cons.
Pro: The feedings are intended to prevent another larger than normal population decline.
Supplemental feeding is a tool being used to prevent an unusually high number of manatee deaths from happening again in 2022, said Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club. The non-profit group promotes manatee protection and conservation efforts. Rose remains concerned about a sharp decline in the amount of seagrass in the water, particularly in the Indian River Lagoon. Manatees are dying because their natural food source is disappearing. The really disturbing part is that it could all start again, Rose said. The number of manatees who died of starvation or malnutrition is not fixed. It all comes back to the nutrient loading in the Indian River lagoon, and that shaded the seagrass beds.
Pro: Feeding stations are designed to prevent manatees from associating humans with food.
Wildlife officials deployed the feeding stations in a landfill area at the Florida Power and Lights Clean Energy Center power plant in Brevard County. They are designed to prevent lettuce from floating in the ocean and to give manatees access to food without human presence to give it to them. Personnel and equipment are stationed at feeding areas to respond to any manatee emergency, said Thomas Reinert, regional director for the southern region of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commissions. The area around the feeding stations is a no-go area. In a no-entry zone, also called a manatee sanctuary, all water recreation activities like boating and swimming are prohibited to protect manatees from harassment, injury and death, according to the US Fish and Wildlife. Service.
Pro: Federal and state officials are considering supplementary feeding as a short-term solution.
The feedings that are taking place now are limited and on a small scale, according to FWC and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The feedings are designed to help reduce the number of Florida manatees needing rescue, as well as the burden on critical care facilities for wildlife rehabilitation.
We understand the importance of a quick response. Our agencies and Unified Command partners have carefully considered all aspects of a short-term feeding trial, said Shannon Estenoz, assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks for the U.S. Department of the Interior, in a statement. It is essential that we support the manatees in the short term with actions compatible with their long-term well-being and resilience.
With: The effectiveness of feedings will depend on the weather. So far it was too hot.
As of Jan. 5, feeding grounds in the Indian River Lagoon were experiencing little activity due to above-average water temperatures, said Reinert of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The few short cold snaps we saw weren’t enough to lower temperatures to that critical threshold where manatees will seek refuge in warm water, he said.
But state leaders expect more manatees to come to feeding stations when the weather and waters cool.
Manatees depend on warm water for survival because they have a low tolerance for water temperatures below 68 degrees for long periods of time, said Erin McDade, spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Protection. from Florida.
With: This may give the public the impression that it is OK for them to feed the manatees. It’s not.
Not only should the public leave supplemental feed to the professionals, but it is also illegal for anyone to feed manatees. Humans feeding manatees or any other wildlife will cause them to lose their fear of humans and leave them vulnerable to harassment, injury or death, Rose said.
And, if a manatee doesn’t eat the food a human provides, the food can degrade in the water and cause more nutrient pollution, which can cause toxic algae blooms, according to the Save the Manatee. Club. Instead of feeding the manatees, people can do things like report malnourished manatees to the FWC’s Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-3922, contact elected officials and ask them to stand up for the manatees, and use environmentally friendly gardening practices to minimize fertilizer pollution.
With: There is no guarantee that this will have a positive effect, and it will not eliminate manatee deaths.
Federal and state officials described the supplemental power supplies as and a test effort. This reflects how this potential solution is something they haven’t tried before to deal with manatee deaths. FWC staff acknowledged that they do not know how many manatees will visit the feeding site and how much lettuce they will eat.
Responding to concerns that manatees might not tolerate hydroponic lettuce, FWC staff said the products selected for supplemental feeds were selected based on expert advice from manatee nutrition. They expect most manatees to adapt without major problems, although it will take time for them to adapt to a different diet.
They also clarified that while the intention of the feedings is to reduce manatee deaths, it will not stop them completely.
Lead writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or [email protected]
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