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CONVERSATIONS: For one manatee volunteer, die-off prompts renewed focus on education

Two orphaned calves ended up at a SeaWorld rehabilitation center, where they faced a long recovery. Photo by Amy Green
Two orphaned calves ended up at a SeaWorld rehabilitation center, where they faced a long recovery. Photo by Amy Green

ORLANDO, Fla. _ While an unprecedented 1,075 manatees have died this year in Florida waters, prompting widespread anguish and anger and an urgent effort to stave off more mortalities, volunteers like Trinket Mason have focused on education.

"Education to me is one of the most important things," says Mason, a Save the Manatee Club volunteer. "It's humans that have caused this die-off …, and the humans are the ones that have to get on board to help, you know, solve this."

Mason is among the volunteers WMFE is featuring as part of our holiday series highlighting central Floridians who are making the world better.

Since the 1980s Mason has been involved with the Save the Manatee Club. She has adopted several of the charismatic sea cows, helping to raise funding for various programs. Lately she enjoys volunteering at festivals like the Florida Manatee Festival in Crystal River, outside of Tampa, or Manatee Festival in Orange City, here in central Florida, both next month.

"There's something so docile about them," she says. "I just fell in love with them."

The number of manatee deaths this year in Florida is more than double the five-year annual average and represents some 12% of the animal's population in the state, estimated at about 8,810. The problem is centered in the Indian River Lagoon, where ongoing water quality problems have led to a widespread loss of seagrass, the manatee's preferred food.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced this month they would start providing supplemental feedings for starving manatees in the Indian River Lagoon, the first time the strategy has been tried for a marine animal. The manatee was downlisted in 2017 from endangered to threatened, although a bill in Congress would restore the animal's endangered status. Feeding manatees remains illegal for individuals.

Mason says Floridians also can help improve water quality and reduce seagrass losses for manatees by conserving water and minimizing their use of fertilizers on lawns. When stormwater runoff carries the fertilizers into the state's waterways, the fertilizers can feed harmful algae blooms that can prevent sunlight from reaching the seagrass undulating beneath the surface.

"They are the gentle giants. They have absolutely no predators other than humans," Mason says of her beloved manatees. "It's one of those animals that if you see them if you're in a bad mood, there's no way after watching manatees that you're not in a good mood."

Amy Green covered the environment for WMFE until 2023. Her work included the 2020 podcast DRAINED.