Photo by Troy Levengood
A Florida manatee eating a head of romaine.
Florida documented 1,101 manatee deaths in 2021, nearly double the number in 2020, and close to 100 of the sea mammals have died in the first month of 2022.
Starvation, caused by agricultural and urban pollution, is the main killer of manatees. Pollution triggers algae blooms, which decimate the seagrass beds on which manatees depend.
Despite a pilot feeding program, food scarcity, cold waters and negligent boating continue to harm this threatened species.
The nonprofit Save the Manatee Club is trying to feed and protect the mammals, while Florida zoos, SeaWorld theme parks and aquariums are working to rescue and house manatees.
A manatee found in Florida waters in January 2021 weighed 490 pounds, more than 600 pounds short of the normal weight of 1,100 pounds. The manatee, named Chandler, also suffered from cold stress. After a year of rehabilitation at ZooTampa’s David A. Straz Jr. Manatee Critical Care Center, he gained 250 pounds and was released into the wild last month.
Manatees nursed back to good health typically are returned to their previous environment, where they know the locations of grass flats, feeding areas and freshwater.
Orphaned calves are commonly received at rescue facilities with limited or no experience of the wild. They are released in warm-water sites where manatees congregate during the winter.
Manatees rescued in a high-risk state often are tagged to monitor their adaptation and behavior back in the wild.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates that 7,520 manatees are in the wild. Human activity and contamination threaten to return the mammal to the endangered list.
Experimental feedings with lettuce, a common food in rehabilitation facilities, continue in the Indian River Lagoon, the Homosassa River Restoration Project, Cocoa City and other locations.
Feeding manatees on your own is illegal. If you spot a manatee injured or starving, call the FWC at 888-404-3922.
Signs of a starving manatee include protruding ribs; a “peanut head,” which is the presence of a curve behind the head; and ventral folds, which are similar to ripples across the abdominal area.
The Manatee Rescue & Rehabilitation Partnership has joined with multiple partners, including SeaWorld Orlando, one of the facilities that has space to nurture manatees. Others include Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park and Centro de Conservación de Manatíes de Puerto Rico.
There are no plans to stretch the feeding program beyond Brevard County, even though the West Indian manatee is seen heading toward warmer waters and food up to Alabama.
Seagrass restoration and reduced water pollution remain the keys to the species’ future.