ORLANDO, Fla. – Wildlife workers manning a special feeding site in Cocoa to help manatees say they’ve now seen hundreds chomping on lettuce daily at the station, so much so that they had to expand operations there.
However, they are also seeing an increase in manatees dying, and starvation is the most common cause of death, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
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FWC workers provided an update on the manatee Unusual Mortality Event Wednesday.
They say this year’s winter got a later start, but so far workers are seeing the same patterns that led to the UME being declared last year.
“From what we’re seeing, it’s kind of the same, temperatures dropping below their comfort zone, the water temperatures are in the 50s and the 60s,” said Martine deWit with FWC.
“Just as an example, on Friday... we had 16 carcasses reported in one day,” deWit said.
She also said that 13 of those 16 carcasses reported were found in Brevard County.
FWC says preliminary numbers from around the state show that 97 manatees have died through Jan. 28. Last year 186 manatees died in January, and 1,101 died in all of 2021.
The Indian River Lagoon is considered the epicenter of the UME because so many manatees rely on seagrass beds in the lagoon in the winter. However, there has been a mass die-off of those beds, and while groups are working to restore the lagoon, it won’t be fast enough to help manatees who are starving.
The agency said they are currently tracking at least a dozen manatees for potential rescue -- they include manatees that look emaciated, that seem to be listing from side to side, and also orphaned calves.
Meanwhile, FWC and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continue to run a pilot feeding program at an FPL power plant in Cocoa, which is the site of an emergency response station for manatee rescue.
After a slow start, officials said they started seeing more manatees arrive to eat lettuce at the feeding stations a few weeks ago. On Jan. 30, the coldest day so far this year, FWC estimates there were 785 manatees at the station. It’s not known, however, how many of those animals were actually feeding, since the FPL power plant is a popular place for manatees to congregate when the weather is cold because of the plant’s warm water discharge.
FWC says they counted around 570 manatees at the station on Wednesday.
“The seagrass issue is not going to be solved by next year,” said Tom Reinert with FWC. “We’re anticipating we may have to repeat this process again next winter using the lessons that we’ve learned this winter.”
As always, FWC says that people should not try to feed manatees on their own, because the manatee will become used to getting food from humans. FWC workers have taken precautions to ensure manatees do not know they are being fed by humans.
There are, however, a number of ways you can help manatees in Florida. We’ve posted ways to donate or volunteer on the ClickOrlando website.
If you come across a sick or injured manatee, call FWC’s Wildlife Alert toll-free number: 1-888-404-FWCC (1-888-404-3922), or #FWC or *FWC on a mobile device.