TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — For the second time ever, Florida wildlife officials will be feeding wild manatees restaurant-quality lettuce.
“I think as a state of Florida we should be concerned about the state of the manatee,” said Tiffany Burns.
Burns is the Director of Marine Life and Animal Programs at Zoo Tampa — one of three critical care spaces for manatees in Florida.
“When there’s such a vast number of die-offs,” Burns said. “And there isn’t enough that we can do to save them, it’s hard to see.”
More than 1,100 manatees died last year, according to data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Many of those deaths are due to starvation.
“Over the years we’ve actually had an unusual mortality event,” Burns said. “Where we’ve seen a lot of manatees that are extremely emaciated and thin.”
This year, there are already 736 dead manatees.
“This is something we’ve been seeing for a few years,” Burns said. “It’s not something that is going to be fixed overnight.”
Officials started feeding manatees last year as a stopgap measure. The issue is a lack of seagrass and vegetation for the manatees due to human pollution.
“We wouldn’t go out and feed a manatee in the wild,” Burns said. “It is done very precisely through this program.”
Officials are working to make sure the manatees don’t become dependent on the lettuce they will put out for them. The feeding should begin in a few weeks and go through March.
“Things that you use in your yard,” Burns said. “All the ways that we contribute to our environment, they have an impact on manatees.”
Though many of the manatee die-offs are happening on the east side of the state, there are manatees found in the Tampa Bay area as well. Zoo Tampa also reminded boaters to be cautious in the water, especially as the manatees migrate. Collisions are the next leading cause of death for the manatees.