BREVARD COUNTY - A commissioner in Brevard County is facing intense criticism from marine advocates after he suggested allowing people to kill manatees as a way to control their population – similar to hunting deer and bears in some states – and to protect the seagrass, a vital food source for the marine species.
Commissioner Curt Smith made the remarks last week at a county commissioner's meeting as a potential solution to protect the marine animals after 1,000 manatees reportedly starved to death in 2021 because of declining seagrass, setting a grim record (830 died in 2013, 637 died in 2020, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission).
The comments left marine and manatee advocates stunned.
"I was absolutely serious. I was serious. This is something that needs to be looked at. And we need people in this state to do exactly that," said Commissioner Smith, when he spoke to FOX 35 News on Thursday.
Manatees are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species act, and the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act. Harassing, hurting, or killing a manatee can come with state and/or federal penalties, including fines and/or jail time.
"It is just absolutely disgusting," said Stel Bailey, an environmentalist.
Activists said the main reason for the declining seagrass is pollution, climate change, and algae blooms.
"They are not addressing the source of pollution. They are just distracting from the real root causes of the problem, which is pollution in the Indian River lagoon," said Bailey.
One thing wildlife officials have learned during the winter experimental feeding program to help manatees avoid starvation is that if you feed them, they will come.
Manatees have eaten virtually all the estimated 160,000 pounds (72,500 kilograms) of lettuce provided at a warm-water power plant site where manatees typically congregate during cold months, officials said last week.
"They’ve eaten every scrap of food we’ve put out," said Scott Calleson of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
It wasn’t clear the manatees would eat the lettuce when the unprecedented program began in December. But officials said that since Jan. 20 the slow-moving marine mammals have feasted on the food made necessary after more than 1,100 manatees died largely from starvation last year, the worst year for the threatened species on record.
"The environmentalists that have tried to get the manatee population up, they’re almost a victim of their own circumstances because they’ve been too successful," Smith added.
Through March 11 of this year, about 420 manatee deaths had been confirmed, still an alarmingly high number.
Over 7,500 manatees live in Florida waters. While they are listed federally as a threatened species, there are efforts to give them the heightened endangered designation.
"I love manatees. Everybody loves manatees. Back in 2000, there were only 2,000 manatees. Now the count’s like 8,000. How many are enough?"
Anyone who sees a distressed or dead manatee should call FWC’s wildlife hotline at 888-404-3922.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.