Florida Wildlife Commission feeds manatees near Cocoa FPL plant

Bite by bite, the majestic and adorable manatees gathered by the dozens near the FPL plant in Cocoa to chomp on literal tons of fresh romaine lettuce, courtesy of the Florida Wildlife Commission. FWC staff fed them from behind a curtain, so the animals didn’t catch on where it all comes from.

"Manatees are smarter than a lot of people give them credit for. One thing we try to do is minimize the reaction they get from, we don't want them to consider people a source of food," said Ron Mezich, with the Florida Wildlife Commission.

There, they feed about 170 sea cows three-times per day, though some days they've fed as few as 70 and as many as 270. FWC says the sea grass that manatees usually eat has been getting choked by harmful algae blooms, since 2009.

"A decline in the water quality in the Indian River Lagoon is what's compromising the sea grass below and the phytoplankton blooms, and that water quality impact is likely due to upland runoff from fertilizers, herbicides, and potentially septic systems," said FWC staffer Michelle Pasawicz.

This is the second year FWC has resorted to feeding the manatees near the FPL plant, in Cocoa. Because of the warm water that runs from the power plant, state officials say the manatees would naturally gather near this area. They say that made this a logical place to be feeding them.

Since the start of the year, FWC says we've seen more than a hundred manatee deaths, but they say the feeding program seems to be working.

"A year or two ago we were seeing animals with obvious signs of emaciation or being underweight. Generally when we see it, it's outlines of bones being visible through the skin, so skull and rib outlines, things like that. We've still had cases like that this winter, but not nearly in the same numbers," said FWC staffer Bill Greer.

FWC has rescued 37 sea cows since the beginning of January, and since released 28 of them back into the wild. Greer said it was too soon to know whether they'll have to feed them again, next winter, but it feels good to help. "The best thing is seeing an animal that you helped rescue and then you're there at their release. That's why everyone in this field does this job."