TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – The temporary supplemental feeding program for West Indian manatees on Florida’s east coast has ended, and operations between the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service are scaling back.
The feeding program at the Florida Power & Light plant in Brevard County ended on March 31. Though winter operations are being scaled back, officials were adamant that response to the ongoing Unusual Mortality Event is not over in the spring and summer months.
“That scaling back is really driven by the demand. It’s driven by what manatees really need at this moment,” said Jon Wallace, of the USFWS, noting they are seeing fewer dead manatees and the animals are starting to disperse from warm-water sites to find food.
Officials are moving to after-action reviews and support work is going to continue through the summer on a smaller scale.
“The next thing that we’re going to do is come together as a group and talk about what we’ve learned this year,” said Wallace. “It’s learning from what you’re doing. We’re going to talk about what we did and what we can do better. What mistakes we made, what lessons we learned and what successes we had.”
According to FWC’s Ron Mezich, Joint Unified Command Provisioning Branch Chief, officials fed manatees a total of 202,155 lbs, or over 101 tons, of lettuce, at a cost of $116,865, funded almost entirely by donations.
Mezich said manatee counts at the temporary feeding site have been declining as the animals disperse. He said only four manatees were counted in the vicinity on Wednesday.
The site will be monitored through April 15 and counts of manatees will be taken and health assessments on animals in need will be done. Officials will reassess the situation after the 15th. If manatees are still in the area, officials may monitor the site a few days out of the week moving forward.
“Long term, we’re thinking manatees are still doing what they should be doing since we’ve discontinued [feeding]. They were off, back to foraging in the wild and moving to other places. At this point, initial impressions are no long-term effects at this point,” Mezich said.
Since the beginning of the year, 37 manatees were rescued along the east coast and 49 manatees have been rescued statewide, according to Andy Garrett, Joint Unified Command Rescue/Recovery Branch Chief. He said preliminary data shows that 17 of those 37 manatees were rescued for starvation.
Garrett said at this point last year, a total of 159 manatees had already been rescued statewide.
From Dec. 1, 2021, through March 31, 457 dead manatee carcasses were picked up, according to Martine de Wit, an associate research scientist with FWC.
“This was lower than this time last winter. Last winter was 582, but that does not mean that manatees did better,” de Wit said. “There could be several explanations and over the summer we will have to go through our data, crunch numbers, review environmental conditions, look at necropsy information to see if we can provide further context. But it likely had to do with a later start to winter.”
She said full necropsies were performed on 144 carcasses. Manatees not fully necropsied received partial examinations, and the majority causes of death were determined to be chronic malnutrition and starvation.
“We believe that almost all of these animals died from the cause of this UME, which is chronic malnutrition and starvation,” de Wit said.
Moving into the summer, she said they expect many manatees who remain in the Indian River Lagoon will suffer from poor health unless they venture out to other areas where they can find quality nutrition.
Manatees remain in various rehabilitation facilities. Terri Calleson of the USFWS confirmed 87 manatees are being rehabilitated for numerous causes, including watercraft injuries, in addition to starvation cases.
Most of those manatees remain in Florida and 32 are receiving care at SeaWorld Orlando.
Cases related to the UME are being cared for at SeaWorld, Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens and Disney’s Living Seas. Calleson said an orphaned calf related to the UME is being taken care of at the Georgia Aquarium.
As of April, FWC reports a total of 479 manatees have died in Florida, compared to 612 manatees at this point in 2021.
As manatees continue to disperse throughout the state, officials are urging Floridians and travelers to stay aware, especially when boating.
If you see a dead, injured or distressed manatee, call FWC’s Wildlife Alert hotline at 888-404-3922.