According to officials, Florida’s lettuce test project has fed 25 tons of lettuce to manatees

Manatee Eating Lettuce — Courtesy: Shutterstock — Mary-Kaitlyn Arnette

The unprecedented human effort to save starving Florida manatees has so far provided the adorable marine mammals with over 25 tons of lettuce, officials said Wednesday.

The round-tailed, snout-nosed animals that are popular with tourists and locals have suffered a major die-off. Their preferred seagrass food source is diminishing because of water pollution from urban, agriculture, septic tanks, and other sources.

Officials say the feeding program, which involves handing out donated romaine lettuce at a Florida Power & Light (FPL) plant on the east coast, is attracting approximately 300 to 350 manatees per day. There have been as many as 800 manatees at a time, and sometimes less than 60 as they move throughout the waterways.

“We’re making a difference,” said Ron Mezich of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission during an online news conference Wednesday. “It gives us the greatest exposure to the greatest number of animals.”

Just last year, a record 1,101 manatee deaths were recorded. The cause was primarily linked to starvation. The typical five-year average is about 625 deaths. So far in 2022, 164 manatee deaths have been listed. Only five have been from boat collisions, according to state wildlife commission statistics. 

“We’ve seen an uptick in mortalities,” said Tom Reinert, FWC south regional director and spokesman for the state-federal effort to save manatees. “We are adjusting our program to get as much food to manatees as we can.”

In usual circumstances, wildlife experts advise against feeding wild animals lettuce because they begin to associate food with humans. It still remains a crime for a person to feed manatees on their own, however, officials say that many people want to help.

The best way to get involved in saving these lovable animals is to donate money through a sponsored entity. They can also keep an eye out and report any sick or struggling manatee.

“Feed them with your dollars,” Reinert said.

Looking at the bigger picture, there are approximately 8,800 or so manatees in Florida waters. That’s a huge improvement from the roughly 2,000 animals in the 1990s, being part of the reason why they were delisted from endangered to threatened by the federal government.

But even with the unusual mortality rate, Reinhert said there’s only a 1% chance of manatees becoming extinct in the wild any time soon. The key will be to restore seagrass beds, which is a long-term project funded by $8 million in state dollars thus far.

“You can’t just go out and plant a bunch of seagrass,” he said. “Projects are getting started and are in the planning stages.”

The feeding program is anticipated to continue through March. 

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