State and federal wildlife officials anticipate they might again have to provide lettuce to manatees gathering in Florida waters next winter. However, as manatees continue dying at a higher-than-normal pace, officials hope to stop the unique trial feeding program before it becomes a long-term solution or the sea cows become dependent on it.
“Moving into the summer, we are going to be reviewing our response efforts over the past season and the last year,” Andy Garrett, manatee rescue coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said during a conference call Thursday. “We’ll be discussing additional response efficiencies with partners as we develop our plan for next year. I think we all anticipate the need for a similar level of response next winter.”
The feeding program ended March 31. A record 1,101 manatees died in Florida in 2021, many because of starvation related to a lack of seagrass to eat. Wildlife officials began feeding lettuce to manatees last year near Florida Power & Light’s Cape Canaveral Clean Energy Center, where the sea cows congregate during the winter as they seek warm water related to plant discharges.
Through Friday, 479 manatees had died this year in Florida waters. At the same point in 2021, 612 manatees had died, up from 205 by April 1, 2020 and 192 by April 1, 2019. Seagrass has been depleted because of poor water quality and algae blooms. Seagrass beds are prime foraging areas for manatees.
“What solves this problem is restoring the Indian River Lagoon and the lush seagrass beds that once were there and were the food for the manatees,” said Tom Reinert, the commission’s South regional director.
Typically, feeding lettuce to manatees would be considered taboo, and the commission has repeatedly issued advisories for the public not to also feed the animals.