BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – As nights continue to grow cold across Florida and temperatures dip, manatees are continuing to be monitored by officials during the Unusual Mortality Event (UME) declared last year.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), manatees were spotted munching on vegetation provided by the team at the Temporary Field Response Station in Brevard County for the first time on Thursday.
“While this is an encouraging step, we do not yet know if this behavior will continue,” the FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute said in a Facebook post. “Our expert staff are continuing to provide food, monitor manatees onsite and are assisting and responding to manatees affected by the Unusual Mortality Event along the Atlantic coast.”
FWC said in its weekly UME update the number of manatees seen at the field site appear to be increasing, but the weather and water temperature changes could change that. It said manatees of all size classes (calf, subadult and adult) were seen.
The team at the station, a joint effort between FWC and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, will continue to place food in PVC feeding corrals and submerged feeders.
On Friday, Tom Reinert, FWC’s Regional Director for the South Region and joint unified command spokesperson, and Ron Mezich, FWC’s Imperiled Species Management Section Leader and joint unified command provisioning branch chief, held a press conference to discuss these updates.
Mezich confirmed there are around 25-35 manatees at the feeding area of the station at a time and they believe a group of manatees deciding to eat was the triggering factor to cause more to feed.
“I think the key was that we had a couple animals decided to try the produce as a food source and found it palatable and once they started eating, that was a trigger for the other animals and that’s kind of what we’ve seen over the past two days now,” Mezich said.
Officials had been working with researchers and were planning on bringing acoustic equipment to the site to play sounds of manatees foraging for food to trigger the animals to eat, but that ended up not being necessary.
Mezich said the manatees they are seeing appear to be doing alright.
“For the most part, the animals that are feeding, they appear to be in relatively good shape, but there are a couple animals that have been spotted in the 25-35 animals that are there right now that look a little underweight. It’s not consistent, there are animals of all types there right now,” he said.
He said they expect to see fewer manatees as the temperature gets warmer and manatees move on from the area. Reinert said an aerial survey of the location showed “several hundred” manatees in the general area of the warm water discharge.
There are currently no plans to expand the supplemental feeding trial to other sites.
In other good news for Florida’s manatees, scientists with the Southwest Florida Water Management District completed its latest mapping of seagrass along Florida’s Springs Coast.
The results of the aerial imagery showed 586,511 acres of seagrass habitat along the coast, up slightly from the previous total of 577,920 surveyed in 2016.