A feeding program for manatees is intensifying in Florida as conservation groups seek to save the marine mammals in the face of a devastating loss in local seagrass, the animals’ favorite food.
The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission also launched a large rescue operation this week to help a number of distressed manatees reported across the state. Manatees are currently experiencing an unusual mortality event, most likely due to a lack of seagrass. Manatees typically graze on seagrass in the Indian River Lagoon, an estuary just north of Cape Canaveral on Florida’s east coast.
A commission release noted that algal blooms in the lagoon in recent years killed off seagrass, causing manatees to starve. There are nearly 50,000 fewer acres of seagrass today than in 2009, according to the Guardian, meaning that the 7,500-odd sea cows in the state have precious little of their main food source.
To prevent starvation, conservation groups regularly distribute lettuce (mostly romaine) as a stand-in for seagrass. In a press conference Wednesday, officials announced that they would increase the amount of romaine to about 20,000 pounds per week, CNN reported.
“At this point in time, we have been successful. Manatees are eating the romaine,” said Ron Mezich, who works in the Imperiled Species Management Section of the Florida-based commission, during the news conference. “We are exposing large amount of animals to this food source and we are making a difference.”
The first half of 2021 alone saw 841 manatees die, and a year later it seems the alarming pattern has continued. In 2022 so far there have been over 300 manatee deaths, according to commission data; this month, a team managed to save six of the animals. Animals that are too frail to manage in the wild (due to injury, starvation, or some other cause) are brought to aquariums to be rehabilitated and later released.
The manatee feeding program was announced last year but now is expected to continue through March, Mezich said. But feeding thousands of manatees lettuce isn’t a long-term plan for the population’s recovery.
“In the bigger picture, this decision is very telling and a strong indication that the coastal ecosystem is no longer able to support manatees, particularly during difficult winter months,” said Jill Richardson, a marine biologist at the University of Miami, in a university release about the current crisis. “I hope it is a wake-up call for all Florida residents and one that promotes significant change.”
The manatee was reclassified from an endangered species to a threatened one in 2017, a label with fewer legal protections. Unless water quality improves in the manatees’ habitats, their troubles will persist.