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To save starving manatees, the wildlife agencies offered up food. But the manatees aren’t eating it

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

A record die-off of manatees in Florida has prompted an unprecedented effort to provide supplement food for the starving animals.

But the manatees aren’t eating the food. 

Some 1,100 manatees died last year in Florida, a staggering loss representing 12% of the animal’s population in the state. The most deaths were in the Indian River Lagoon, a critical manatee habitat where water quality problems and seagrass losses have left the animals starving.

Fearing more deaths this winter, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in December began offering lettuce to the animals near a power plant in Cape Canaveral, where the cold-sensitive manatees gather during the cool months for warmth.

So far the manatees have left the food untouched. That doesn’t surprise Wanda Jones, a marine mammal biologist. She says the agencies are providing the wrong food.

“When wild manatees have been brought in for rehabilitation they don’t recognize lettuce as food because it’s not a natural food for them. They learn to eat lettuce in captivity when they see other manatees eating it.”

Jones says the wildlife agencies should be feeding the manatees water hyacinth and hydrilla. Ron Mezich of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says the agencies considered that but decided transporting the freshwater vegetation would be too challenging logistically.

“It takes time and effort, and the produce that we get on-site will have to be cleaned if it’s taken from another water body. It comes with organisms and sediments that we don’t want to introduce to the Indian River Lagoon.”

Mezich says the wildlife agencies are experimenting with where and how to offer the lettuce, like whether to leave it floating or submerged. He says the agencies are learning as they go because this has never been done before.

Pat Rose of the Save the Manatee Club says he had hoped the agencies would approve the feedings back in August, which would have provided more options for the feedings. He would have liked for the agencies to offer Vallisneria, another freshwater vegetation.

“There are some other places in Brevard County where manatees aggregate early in the winter and then will leave those areas as the weather gets colder. There could have been supplemental feeding there. It actually would have been pretty easy to make the food available to the manatees there.”

Rose says it is too soon to say whether the effort has been successful or a failure. The manatees also have benefitted from recent warm weather and may not have needed the food. The wildlife agencies say the number of deaths this winter is about half of what it was at this point last year.  

The Legislature during the last session allocated $8 million toward restoration projects to help the manatees.

Feeding manatees remains illegal for individuals. The concern there is the animals associating humans with food and being struck by boats — another leading cause of manatee deaths.

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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 »