TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Wildlife officials appeared optimistic Wednesday that an unusual feeding program for starving manatees in the Indian River Lagoon has provided some relief for the sea cows as the cold-water season nears an end.
But feeding lettuce to manatees might be necessary again next winter because of the dwindling amount of seagrass in the lagoon, officials from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said during a conference call with reporters.
Tom Reinert, South region director for the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said a decision will come after a review of what worked and what didn’t in the feeding program.
"The mortality numbers aren't what’s going to drive that, it's the efficacy of what we've been doing. And we're going to work on figuring that out," Reinert said. "We're not going to solve the seagrass issues in the Indian River Lagoon over the course of this summer. So, we will have to see, but it feels likely that we may have to do this again."
Ron Mezich, leader of the commission’s imperiled species management section, said officials remain concerned that manatees will start to expect they will be fed lettuce, which could soon end with the arrival of warm waters.
"Once we stop, we have no intention of starting again for this spring," Mezich said. "And that's in large part because we don't want to condition the animals to have an expectation that whenever it gets cold there will be food there. That's not something we want to imprint on them."
Typically, taking such steps to feed wildlife would be considered taboo among wildlife professionals, and the commission has repeatedly issued advisories for the public not to feed manatees.
But wildlife officials made the decision to provide lettuce after a record 1,101 manatees died in Florida waters last year. Many of the deaths were attributed to starvation because of declining seagrass beds that are prime foraging areas, particularly in the Indian River Lagoon. Poor water quality and algae blooms helped lead to the seagrass problems.
The pace of deaths has slowed slightly. So far this year, 400 manatee deaths have been reported in Florida waters, down from 430 at the same point a year ago. Another 83 manatees are being treated at aquariums.
In 2020, when 637 manatee deaths were reported, an early March number was 158. In 2019, 607 manatees died, with 149 deaths at this point in the year.
Reinert said the overall cost of the relief effort has not been calculated.
"It's been an elevated response, certainly, from a law enforcement standpoint and from our biologists, again, who cover their respective areas, seven days a week," Reinert said. "It is elevated from normal. So there is probably some kind of a cost to that."
All but about $250 spent on lettuce has come through donations. A $112.1 billion state budget that lawmakers approved Monday for the 2022-2023 fiscal year includes $5.3 million for manatee rescue operations.
Manatees congregate in the winter in warm-water areas such as near power plants. Officials said they are starting to see manatees disperse from waters in Brevard County near Florida Power & Light’s Cape Canaveral Clean Energy Center.
The rescue efforts come as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is less than a year into a five-year review to determine if the status of manatees should be changed from threatened to endangered. The lumbering animals went from endangered to threatened in 2017 as federal officials reported a sizable increase in the population.
The Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and the Save the Manatee Club jointly filed a lawsuit Feb. 1 in Washington, D.C., seeking to force federal wildlife officials to upgrade manatee habitat protections.
The lawsuit contends the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not take final action on a 2008 petition to revise what is known as a "critical habitat" designation for manatees. The lawsuit describes such designations as key "for ensuring the survival and effectuating the recovery of imperiled species such as the Florida manatee."
The federal agency has not filed an initial response.
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