The experience of feeding manatees begins slowly as the cold approaches

A feeding station set up along the state’s east coast has not tempted wild manatees with lettuce, even though the animals will eat it in captivity, officials said at a remote news conference.

Water pollution from agricultural, urban and other sources has caused an algal bloom that has wiped out the seaweeds that the manatees depend on, resulting in 1,110 manatees dying largely due to starvation in 2021. A typical five-year average is about 625 deaths.

This led to the Lettuce Feeding Program, part of a joint manatee death response group led by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. It remains a violation of state and federal law for people to feed manatees on their own.

“We have not documented animals feeding on lettuce,” said Ron Mesic, head of the joint effort supply branch. “We know manatees will eat lettuce.”

During the winter months, hundreds of manatees congregate in the warm waters from natural springs and power plant drains. Since this winter has been unusually mild in Florida so far, the animals have been even more scattered.

“They’re moving, but they haven’t been stressed by the cold temperatures yet,” said Tom Reinert, FWC’s Southern Regional Director. “We expect that to happen.”

In addition to the feeding experience, officials are working with a number of facilities to rehabilitate distressed manatees that have been found alive. They include Florida Zoos, SeaWorld amusement park, and marine aquariums. Officials said 159 manatees were rescued in 2021, some requiring extended care and some returned to the wild.

“Our facilities are at or close to capacity,” said Andy Jarrett, chief of rescue and rescue. “These animals need long-term care. It has been a tremendous amount of work so far.”

There are at least 7,520 manatees in Florida waters currently, according to state statistics. The slow-moving, round-tailed mammal sufficiently to be listed as a threatened species rather than endangered has rebounded, although efforts continue to restore the endangered mark due to starvation.

Officials are also using $8 million in state money on several projects aimed at restoring manatee habitat and planting new seagrass beds, but this is a slow process and will not ultimately solve the problem until the polluted water is improved.

People can report any manatees they see that may be distressed by calling the Wildlife Hotline at 888-404-3092. Another way to help is to donate money through a state-sponsored fund or purchase a Save the Manatee vehicle license plate.

This is better than feeding manatees in person, which does more harm than good because the animals will associate humans with food, according to officials. People and manatees have struggled to coexist for decades.

“This is a very dangerous situation,” Reinert said. “Use your dollars, not heads of lettuce.”

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Andrew Naughtie

News reporter and author at @websalespromo