A federal-state task force will feed malnourished manatees in Florida’s Indian River Lagoon in an unprecedented effort to stem a dramatic die-off of the imperiled marine mammal.
As of Friday, officials said, 1,038 manatees have died this year — nearly 12 percent of the state’s total population of 8,810 animals.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have approved a number of mitigation efforts to address the manatee deaths, including feeding, rescues, carcass recoveries and field health assessments.
“Unfortunately, we still anticipate relatively high mortality along Florida’s Atlantic Coast during the winter of 2021-22 due to the loss of seagrass associated with poor water quality within the Indian River Lagoon,” the commission said in an email announcement.
“As such and because supplemental feeding of manatees is a management action that has not been tried before, we do not know how many manatees will visit the site, or how much vegetation individual manatees will consume.”
In July, the Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries decided to distinguish the increased deaths as an unusual mortality event, citing complications from climate change and water pollution as compounding factors (E&E News PM, July 9).
Starvation emerged as a recent factor in the die-off as manatees moved to find warm water refuges as weather turned cold, and water pollution made it harder for manatees to find sea grass and other vegetation. Sewage and fertilizer runoff have killed large swaths of sea grasses.
In the Indian River Lagoon alone, more than 500 manatees have died due to starvation. There is warmer water at that location from a local power plant but not reliable food in the area.
In October, the conservation commission asked the state for a $7 million increase in 2022 funding to address the unprecedented deaths of manatees this past year (Greenwire, Oct. 19).
During a state House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, Gil McRae, director of the commission’s research institute, testified that supplemental feeding may be one of the short-term solutions used to help save the population.
In its $7 million request, the commission was seeking $160,000 to enhance manatee rescue and mortality response, as well as $717,676 to increase capacity to rescue manatees.
Biologist Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, said the decision was a long time coming.
“The large numbers of [the Indian River Lagoon] manatees aggregating at the power plant are already starving; they’re going to be forced to make the decision to stay there and stay warm or go elsewhere to find food,” Rose said. “The goal is to prevent the literal starvation and reduce the number of manatees that have to be rescued because there is little capacity.”
Defenders of Wildlife announced its support for the decision, but the group cautioned that this short-term solution to the mortality event doesn’t address the pollution that’s destroying sea grasses.
“Losing more than 1,000 manatees in a single year is devastating to the species, and it will take a long time to recover from this significant setback,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, the group’s CEO and president. “This program could help save many manatees at a critical time when every animal is important to the future of the species.”