TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Florida wildlife officials have plans once again this winter to feed West Indian manatees supplementary lettuce, as the unusual mortality event of the species continues in the state.

The Unusual Mortality Event (UME) was declared in 2021 due to an increase in manatee deaths caused by starvation, due to lack of food, particularly in the Indian River Lagoon on Florida’s east coast.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Joint Unified Command expert panel updated media members regarding plans for its winter response on Wednesday.

Officials said plans are being finalized for this year’s response before temperatures stay consistently cooler and manatees begin to move to warm water, such as Florida’s natural springs or power plants with warm, clean water discharge.

According to Ron Mezich, Joint Unified Command Provisioning Branch Chief, the temporary field response station and supplemental feeding site will once again be housed in the area of the Florida Power & Light plant in Cape Canaveral, the same location as last year.

According to the Associated Press, about 202,000-lbs of lettuce, both romaine and butterleaf, was fed to manatees at the location before the site closed for the season in April. The cost of the lettuce was $116,865, funded almost entirely by donations.

Mezich said the supplemental feeding program is in planning stages for when manatees and environmental conditions determine when time is right for feeding to begin.

He said water temperatures are currently still very warm and manatees are not yet congregating in the area. A seasonal “no entry zone” has been issued around the temporary field response center.

There is currently no set date for when feedings of manatees will begin, but officials will be ready to go if the need is there as of Dec. 1, according to Mezich.

Mezich has previously said officials hope the feeding of manatees during the winter months is only temporary as FWC officials work to restore seagrass beds.

While officials will be offering lettuce to manatees this winter, it is illegal for residents and visitors of Florida to do so at the state and federal level.

Another concern this winter is critical care and rehabilitation space for manatees.

Teresa Calleson, Manatee Rescue & Rehabilitation Partnership (MRP) liaison for the Joint Unified Command, said there are currently 80 manatees being cared for in rehabilitation facilities in Florida, Georgia, Ohio and Puerto Rico.

“Critical care space remains a concern, 80 is a little bit lower than we have been, but it’s still way higher than we were, say, five years ago,” said Calleson. “So we’re still trying to manage that critical care space and have concerns about that as we head toward winter.” 

Calleson said ZooTampa and SeaWorld Orlando are currently the only facilities able to accept rescued manatees and officials are already seeing emaciated manatees coming in, as well as those with watercraft-related injuries.

SeaWorld Orlando is caring for the most manatees out of any facility with 27. Calleson said SeaWorld has started construction on new, permanent pools that are anticipated to be ready by the end of January or beginning of February, providing 20 additional rehabilitation spaces.

The Bishop Museum of Science & Nature in Bradenton is also expanding to help manatees in need.

“They’re going to be adding a satellite facility that will directly help orphaned calves as well as smaller manatees and they expect that to be online as well this winter,” Calleson said.

She said several other partners are building or refurbishing pools to help critical care and rehabilitation capacity for manatees. Financial assistance is also coming in “significantly,” according to Calleson, at both the state and federal level.

Though there are concerns with space, Calleson said some manatees rescued previously are being medically cleared to be released from rehabilitation facilities, including 20-24 orphaned calves in rehabilitation facilities that have gained enough weight to be medically cleared to return to the wild this winter.

As of Nov. 4, FWC reports 735 manatees have died in Florida, compared to 994 at this time in 2021.

To report a sick, injured, dead or tagged manatee, call FWC’s Wildlife Alert Hotline at 1-888-404-FWCC (1-888-404-3922) or call *FWC or #FWC from a cell phone.