COCOA, Fla. – The experimental feeding designed to help starving manatees in the Indian River Lagoon came to an end Friday.
Over the last three months, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) gave manatees lettuce as many were starving to death at record rates.
Now, the FWC said the warmer weather means the manatees are going to start moving around to other parts of the lagoon.
Manatees chomped through more than 193,000 pounds of lettuce at the agency’s Temporary Field Response station near the power plant in Cocoa this winter. It was the first-time scientists had ever tried to feed them in the wild.
They said it’s because more than 90% of the seagrass they typically eat in the Indian River Lagoon has been killed off by pollutants like fertilizer.
“We lost more than 25% of the manatees’ population on the east coast in the last 15 months. That’s going to take about a decade to recover that if we do everything right,” Dr. Patrick Rose said.
Rose is with the Save the Manatee Club, one of the nonprofit organizations supporting the feeding and researching behind saving the animals.
The latest FWC data shows 465 manatees have died so far this year, which is 100 fewer than this time last year but more than double 2019 and 2020′s numbers.
FWC leaders said this week the experiment would stop Friday but they would still be monitoring the area.
“We are conducting aerial surveys and things of that nature to study manatee distribution. It’s not a population survey but more of distribution survey,” Tom Reinert with the FWC said on Wednesday.
They believe they could be back next winter, though.
Rose said his organization is now focusing on supporting legislation that’s been introduced to add protections for manatees and attempting to regrow seagrass, though the lagoon’s water quality doesn’t support it well yet.
“(There was) 77,000 acres of seagrass lost not only resulting in manatees dying but the dolphin population is suffering, the sea turtles ultimately, even the pin fish would depend on those same nursery grounds,” he said.
If you see a sick or injured manatee, you’re asked to call FWC at 1-888-404-3922 or by dialing #FWC. You can learn more about the Save the Manatee Club and donate to it through their website.