It was an unseasonably mild February morning near Cape Canaveral, and boxes of lettuce were being sorted.
The Florida-grown romaine lettuce is a key ingredient in a critical mission to save the state’s manatees.
“It is heartbreaking that these animals are starving because there’s just no food,” said Tom Reinert, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s South Region director and a manatee expert. “We’re anticipating higher than normal deaths.”
Reinert is one of the point guards in this experimental joint mission between FWC and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We try to keep track of who’s getting something to eat,” he said, “but is tough with so many manatees.”
A pop-up feeding station is set up at the intake canal at Florida Power & Light’s clean energy plant on the Indian River Lagoon that every winter attracts some 2,500 manatees looking for warmer waters.
“Because FPL has a warm water discharge,” Reinert said. “It stays warmer than the ambient, and the ambient here got down into the low 60s.”
Last year was the deadliest year on record for Florida manatees — more than 1,100 gone, most starving to death because of the dramatic loss of seagrass, their only food source.
The Indian River Lagoon the epicenter of the crisis, with Reinert estimating 80-90% of the seagrass lost.
But vast acres of seagrass beds have been disappearing across the state for years because of all the pollution that flows into Florida waterways, stacking the deck against the manatees.
“That combination, cold weather, very little forage, really set them up for failure last year,” Reinert said. “And we started to see those effects.”
The death toll was so high, an unusual mortality event was declared last April, igniting the unprecedented pilot program that began in mid-December, with no success for weeks, until finally on Jan. 20 the hungry manatees began to feed.
“Some animals did come in and start eating, and we believe that the sound of them crunching lettuce attracted the others to say, ‘Hey, there must be something good over there,’” Reinert said.
During the recent bitter cold snap, there were about 800 manatees congregated in the Indian River Lagoon, looking for that warmer water and, more importantly, getting fed.
The manatees have been eating about 2,500 pounds of lettuce a day. An average 1,000-pound sea cow can easily eat 10% of its body weight daily.
“We know we can’t save them all, but we’re doing the best that we can,” Reinert said. “To advance this conservation effort.”
It is an urgent undertaking. In January alone, FWC reports 97 manatees died, while 14 others in distress had to be rescued.
“It’s a very labor-intensive process to rescue animals,” said Scott Calleson, an FWC imperiled species biologist. “It can take a dozen people or more.”
It’s also not cheap. Manatees can spend up to eight months in rehab at an average cost of $40,000. ZooTampa, one of three state partners, is already at capacity. They’re used to seeing manatees with boat strike injuries but have never seen anything like this.
“I would say the majority of manatees that have been rescued over the past year are mostly emaciated,” said Tiffany Burns, director of conservation, research and behavior for ZooTampa.
SeaWorld Orlando had to build three extra pools just to accommodate any new intakes.
“We’re very good at getting the animals in right away and doing the immediate triage, the immediate rehab,” said Maggie Mariolis, a senior animal care specialist at SeaWorld.
And to make room for even more rescued manatees, they recently transferred four females to the Columbus Zoo in Ohio, courtesy of DHL, until they’re strong enough to be released back in Florida. State partners are so overwhelmed that this supplemental feeding program just has to work.
“One of the things we’re hoping to accomplish with this effort is to hopefully reduce the number of animals that come in to rehab,” Calleson said.
FWC Chairman Rodney Barreto is hopeful. Once endangered, Florida’s manatees have bounced back before.
“The manatee is a success story in Florida, the herd is as big as it’s ever been,” Barreto said. “And that’s through all the efforts that Florida has done throughout the mandatory protection zones. ... And I congratulate the agency for just pulling out all the stops. We’ve done something great here.”
Yet until Florida cleans up its waters and the seagrass come back, this mission is far from over.
“That’s something we as Floridians need to get a handle on and work with our agencies to improve the water quality across Florida, not just here in the Indian River Lagoon,” Reinert said.
Closer to home, environmentalists are outraged after the Miami-Dade County board of commissioners approved sea trials during next week’s Miami International Boat Show in a portion of Biscayne Bay designated a manatee-protected habitat. Local 10 News will dive deeper into that next week.
In the meantime, FWC is stressing not to feed manatees yourself, as it will disrupt their behavior and leave them vulnerable to boat strikes if they begin to associate humans with food. If you want to feed manatees, feed them with dollars. All that lettuce is expensive, and FWC needs your donations.
To donate to the manatee supplemental feeding program, click here.
And if you see a dead, injured or distressed manatee, the FWC alert number to call is 888-404-3922.