UPDATE: Florida manatee starvation threat not over

You can find a link to donate to the effort to feed starving manatees at the bottom of this story
An adult and young manatee swim together in a canal in Coral Gables, Fla.
An adult and young manatee swim together in a canal in Coral Gables, Fla.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Published: Feb. 17, 2022 at 1:01 PM EST|Updated: Jul. 20, 2022 at 4:22 PM EDT
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Fewer manatee deaths have been recorded so far this year in Florida compared to 2021 but wildlife officials caution that chronic starvation remains a dire and ongoing threat to the marine mammals.

Between Jan. 1 and July 15, about 630 manatee deaths have been confirmed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

That compares with 864 during the same period last year, when a record number of manatees died mainly from a lack of seagrass food, which was decimated by water pollution; the five-year average of manatee deaths in that time frame is 481.

Wildlife officials say manatees continue to face dwindling food options and many survivors are severely weakened by malnutrition.

To make a donation to help feed manatees in Florida, go here.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — The unprecedented human effort to feed starving Florida manatees has so far provided the lovable marine mammals with more than 25 tons of lettuce, officials said Wednesday.

The round-tailed, snout-nosed animals popular with locals and tourists have suffered a major die-off because their preferred seagrass food source is disappearing because of water pollution from agricultural, urban, septic tank and other sources.

Officials say the feeding program involving donated romaine lettuce at a Florida Power & Light plant on the east coast is attracting about 300 to 350 manatees per day. It’s been as many as 800 manatees at times, sometimes less than 60 as they move around the waterways.

“We’re making a difference,” said Ron Mezich of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission during an online news conference Wednesday. “It gives us the greatest exposure to the greatest number of animals.”

Last year, a record 1,101 manatee deaths were recorded, largely from starvation. The typical five-year average is about 625 deaths. So far this year, 164 manatee deaths have been listed, only five from collisions with boats, according to state wildlife commission statistics.

“We’ve seen an uptick in mortalities,” said Tom Reinert, FWC south regional director and spokesman for the state-federal effort to save manatees. “We are adjusting our program to get as much food to manatees as we can.”

Normally, wildlife experts advise against feeding wild animals because they begin to associate humans with food. And it remains a crime for a person to feed manatees on their own, although officials say many people want to help.

The best way is to donate money, they say, through a sponsored entity, and to make sure to report any sick or struggling manatee.

“Feed them with your dollars,” Reinert said.

Looking at the big picture, there are an estimated 8,800 or so manatees in Florida waters. That’s a big improvement from the roughly 2,000 animals in the 1990s, part of the reason they were delisted from endangered to threatened by the federal government.

But even with this unusual die-off, Reinert said there’s only a 1% chance of manatees becoming extinct in the wild any time soon. The key will be restoring seagrass beds, which is a long-term project funded by $8 million in state dollars so far.

“You can’t just go out and plant a bunch of seagrass,” he said. “Projects are getting started and are in the planning stages.”

To make a donation to help feed manatees in Florida, follow this link.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.