TAMPA, Fla — It’s a positive sign for the Florida Manatee — deaths seem to have slowly declined this year versus last in Florida. But there are still problems facing the gentle giants, and a feeding program may have uncovered a new reality for manatees.
According to FWC, 537 manatees died in the first three months of 2021. But during the same time period this year, 441 deaths have been reported. While that's a move in the right direction, a Brevard County feeding program found the Florida manatees are desperate for food.
“This is an unprecedented event. We’ve had large issues before like red tide where we’ve had a lot of animals impacted but this is different, this is long-term, this is going to take some time to recover some sea grasses here,” said Ron Mezich, the Unified Command Provisioning Branch Chief at FWC. “When we came out of east winter, that prompted us to start discussions that summer, what are our other options, what else is not the table?”
In December 2021, FWC started the first of its kind feeding program and by mid-January officials said the manatees were eating virtually “every scrap” of produce they put out, which further showed just how scarce their food source has become.
“It’s a mixed bag for us, it’s proof of concept, that felt really good that we were here and here for a purpose and helping the animals,” said Mezich. “But, truth be told, we’d rather have them not here, we’d rather them adapt and be somewhere else where there’s food and they can do it on their own.”
By the end of March 2022, they will have fed about 200,000 pounds of produce. But they said this program was only a winter intervention and was never met to go throughout the entire year. It’s why they plan to stop the program in the next week and a half. Then debrief on their efforts ahead of the 2022 winter season where they’ll likely start the program again.
Lisa Smith, an animal care supervisor at Zoo Tampa, said the lack of sea grass isn’t as big a problem on the west coast, but she takes care of several manatees who are injured, sick, or orphaned. They're fed about 1,000 pounds of lettuce a day. She said she isn’t surprised by their response to that type of produce.
“They have to eat pretty much all day long, they eat 10 to 15% of their body weight. So for a grown adult, that’s going to be over 100 pounds a day of nutrition that they need,” she said.
They typically rehab manatees that are malnourished, but most of the time it's a secondary issue caused by cold stress, a boat strike, or another type of injury. They have a manatee named "Corduroy," who suffered a fractured sinus cavity and has been getting antibiotics to help him fight off any infection.
“It’s really unfortunate they’re having a really hard time right now and it’s definitely hurting their population,” she said. “Here at the zoo, we really try to focus on the patients we have and the animals that we can bring into our care, help them get better, release them back into the wild so we can make more space and continue to help the manatees.”
They also are caring for four orphaned calves. She said they will have to stay with them until they’re at least 2-years-old.
“They are here because they were found alone. We don’t know exactly why they were left alone, if they got abandoned by mom but they wouldn’t survive on their own in the wild,” she said.
FWC said one thing we can all do to show our support for manatees is to purchase a manatee specialty license plate for your vehicle or vessel. That money goes towards helping the species.
You can also help by keeping the manatee habitat clean and volunteer your time to educate others. The most important thing is to be aware and be prepared on the waterways. Obey all waterway signs, use propeller guards appropriately, and also avoid traveling in seagrass or other shallow areas.