The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) rescued a record number of manatee in 2021 as habitats failed to provide sufficient nutrition and more than 1,100 manatee died, prompting a declaration of an unusual mortality event and the creation of a joint unified command to tackle the problem.
In a press conference on Thursday, FWC staff and members of the joint command spoke to the issue and current projects underway.
The problem started in December 2020 with an uptick in manatee deaths around the Indian River Lagoon. By March 2021, the deaths constituted an unusual mortality event.
Manatee deaths topped 637 in 2020 but had reached 1,000 by November 2021.
The Unified Joint Command started Nov. 4 with priorities of reducing manatee deaths, mitigating the impacts of manatee bodies and ensuring public safety through the efforts.
The leading factor of death for the manatee has been a lack of food as water quality and algae bloom have wrecked wild food sources.
“A lot of the lagoon looks like a desert,” Martine de Wit, an FWC manatee scientist, said at the conference.
The Indian River Lagoon, located south of Melbourne, forms a “capital” for manatees along the East Coast, where the majority of deaths have occurred.
De Wit added that starvation is also a chronic issue. Some manatee survived food shortages last year, but lingering effects may leave animals in suboptimal condition for this winter.
In mid-December, the FWC began running a temporary site in Brevard County to feed manatee from. The researcher decided to use lettuce for the project and has tried using various distribution techniques.
Lettuce isn’t a native food source for manatees, but in captivity, manatees do adjust to it after time. In the wild, with different manatee coming and going, researchers are having a tough time getting lettuce to work.
To date, the FWC hasn’t confirmed a case of manatee eating the lettuce provided.
On Nov. 9, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection awarded $481 million for 103 wastewater and springs projects throughout the state to reduce nitrogen loading by more than 700,000 pounds a year and improve water quality.
The Florida Legislature approved $8 million for restoration projects last year, and Ron Mezich, provisioning branch chief for FWC, said the commission has already earmarked the money for seven different projects.
Two of those projects involve Florida springs that will hopefully start during the spring once the manatee clear out. Manatee flock to springs in the winter to stay warm, and Alachua County often sees that increase.
The other five projects remain in the permit phase and Mezich said they hope to get them approved by the summer and then get underway.
One problem the FWC has encountered concerns growing new beds of seagrass, a primary source of food for manatee.
Usually, Mezich says restoration projects try to pull shoots from existing seagrass beds nearby, but the Indian River Lagoon is too bare for researchers to pull existing shoots to transplant.
The FWC is seeing around half the number of manatee deaths this January compared to last year.
The unseasonably warm winter has contributed to the lower number. With warmer water, manatee stay spread out and can forage more effectively. With colder temperatures, manatee gather at the same locations—like springs—to stay warm, but the food supply can then run short.
Manatee rehabilitation continues at a fast pace. The FWC has rescued 23 manatees in the last month, and FWC staff said the facilities are hitting capacity with Sea World as the only partner accepting additional manatees.
Andy Garrett, recovery branch chief for FWC, said facility space depends on a number of factors. One boating incident with a manatee might require a full tank of space while multiple manatee with other needs might be able to share the same area.
“So it’s kinda a moving gauge for us,” Garrett said, adding that FWC would like to have regional capacity near where the manatee is rescued. “Unfortunately, right now, we don’t have that.”
FWC is seeing longer stays as manatees need longer term care compared with the past. A stay might measure in months or even an entire year.
Currently, Florida has 11 facilities along with one in both Ohio and Texas. One may be opening soon in Georgia as well.
Sea World is taking care of 35 manatees right now and Garrett said two from the facility will be released Thursday.
From the public side of things, FWC said concerned citizens can support the FWC and its partners through donations online, but trying to feed manatees is still illegal under state and federal law.
Multiple FWC staff commented that the sincere intent can lead to further problems.
“We’d like to direct their passion in a way that actually will help manatees and not harm them in the long run,” Tom Reinert, Joint Unified Command Spokesperson, said. “The public trying to hand feed manatees really has more of a negative impact in the long run.”
He pointed to the nonprofit side of the FWC, the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida, where the public can donate. Florida also makes manatee license plates available for purchase with the money going to rescue efforts.
FWC staff also highlighted the importance of using the Wildlife Alert Hotline (888-404-3922) to call in injured or distressed manatees. The FWC receives thousands of calls a year on the line, and the majority of manatee rescues come from those calls.
You can find more information on programs concerning manatees and ways to contribute at the FWC website page dedicated to the issue.