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CONVERSATIONS: To save starving manatees, wildlife authorities consider supplemental feedings

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

Wildlife authorities are bracing for more manatee deaths this winter, after a record 974 perished this year in Florida waters.

Many of the deaths have been in the Indian River Lagoon. The situation is so dire wildlife authorities now are considering the controversial measure of supplemental feedings.

WMFE environmental reporter Amy Green talked with the Save the Manatee Club’s Pat Rose. 

ROSE: Supplemental feeding would be providing forage for manatees, and in this case we’re talking about possibly in the wild. That’s really something that’s been illegal for many years. It’s something we don’t condone. It can change adversely the manatees’ behavior. And so it’s not, it’s illegal and not recommended. These are special circumstances, though.

GREEN: The number of deaths represents 10% of the animal’s population in the state. Why aren’t wildlife authorities already doing supplemental feedings for starving manatees?

ROSE: Well, the thing to understand is that the problem is most noticeable, if you will, are in effect in the wintertime when manatees have to make that choice between being able to find food nearby where they have to also stay warm. And there’s been such a devastating loss of seagrasses, there just isn’t enough food from around the power plant there in the Titusville area. So the manatees have to make that choice to stay warm or starve to death in that process. And so it’s a terrible choice.

GREEN: How would this work logistically?

ROSE: Well, it’s still being worked out as to what would happen. It’s going to take some experimenting. And this winter weather, it’s not winter yet, but we’ve had enough cold that started to move some of the manatees into even the power plant. And so this is suggesting that this supplemental feeding needs to be strongly considered. And it needs to be tested and needs to be likely undertaken before the animals get to much more malnourished, if you will, and farther along in the starvation cycle. But we also need to know what percentage of the manatees are facing this situation.

GREEN: What would the manatees eat? And how would the wildlife agencies do this?

ROSE: So it’s being considered as to whether to use natural vegetation. But it’s more likely going to come down to providing them some form of agriculture-based vegetation, whether it be lettuce or cabbage or some of those other plants. There are big concerns, too, about being able to contain that properly so it’s available to the manatees and whether they’ll even eat it. And then not having too much excess vegetation even that would remain in the ecosystem that could contribute potentially to just unneeded nutrients in that system. But I think that’s a pretty small concern by comparison.

GREEN: The manatee was down-listed in 2017 from endangered to threatened. Has anything like this ever been tried before for other imperiled species?

ROSE: Well, I think it has, and then as a routine or a long-term feeding, I don’t think anybody feels that’s what we need to do. But we have such an acute problem with last year’s starvation and this year likely to be repeating, we need to have a bridge to get them across this really acute situation. It’s 10% loss equal to of the entire population in Florida, but it’s 20% of the East Coast population. So it’s impacting those animals even more severely. As an alternative, we must bear in mind that there’s going to have to be a lot more manatees rescued this year. We’ve already had 131 manatees rescued, and that’s a sort of counterpart of feeding them. Because even if we provided food, they may not eat it. So we’ve got to be ready to rescue many more manatees, if it’s determined their body condition is so poor that they’re likely to die. And then we’ve got to have facilities able to house those manatees and take care of them.

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Amy Green

About Amy Green

Reporter and Producer

Amy Green covers the environment and climate change at WMFE News. She is an award-winning journalist and author whose extensive reporting on the Everglades is featured in the book MOVING WATER, published by Johns Hopkins University Press, and podcast DRAINED, available wherever you get your podcasts. Amy’s ... Read Full Bio »