FWC & USFWS respond—Florida’s manatee facing crisis will get a bit of extra help

Manatee Eating — Courtesy: Shutterstock — Image by: somdul

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced an expanded effort on Wednesday to respond to the ongoing manatee unusual mortality event along Florida’s Atlantic coast.

Just in 2021, more than 1,000 manatees have died across the state of Florida. According to Thomas Eason, Assistant Executive Director of FWC, the majority of those deaths were the result of starvation.

“Lack of seagrass in the Indian River Lagoon has led to a large number of the mortalities over the last year,” Eason said.

The lack of food is most prevalent in Indian River Lagoon, a 150-mile-long saltwater estuary where more than 90% of the seagrass, the manatee’s main food source, has died. So far this year, the record number of manatee deaths is 10% of the entire Florida population.

The seagrass was killed off by toxic algae blooms fueled largely by fertilizer and human waste runoff from farms and lawns, a problem that has been in the making for decades. As more people moved to the region and wastewater infrastructure aged, more waste leaked into the estuary, said Duane De Freese, a marine biologist and the executive director of the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program.

“The manatee situation is a symptom,” Dr. De Freese said. “In 2011, it appears we hit a tipping point.”

In response to the devastating issue, a joint incident command system has been created for wildlife managers to share information with one another and maximize response efficiency. Eason said they are prepared to do an “experimental supplemental feeding” this winter if needed.

This feeding could help to lower the number of manatee starvation deaths which are expected to rise exponentially. 

“The consequences are too dire not to at least give this a try,” said Patrick Rose, the executive director of Save the Manatee Club, a nonprofit group that supports the aquatic mammal.

The program will most likely involve produce such as lettuce and cabbage, similar to what manatees are given to eat when taken into captivity for rehabilitation. 

“We are hoping for more warm days to keep the manatees dispersed so they can find the food where it is and not get concentrated into areas where the food is not abundant,” Eason said. “We’ve decided this unprecedented event requires unprecedented actions.”

The urgent decision is a fraught one, as many scientists have found that feeding wild animals can sometimes do more harm than good. However, Florida’s manatees, already threatened with extinction, have suffered devastating losses over the last year. 

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