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The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission announced 1,101 manatees died in Florida waters in 2021 as water pollution hurt their food supply.
Though, a new feeding plan could save many manatees from starvation. But they will still face the long-term threat of man-made water pollution stifling their food supply, wildlife officials said.
The slow-moving marine mammals will soon begin to gather at warm-water sites, such as power plants, as the ocean temperatures cool, and there may not be enough sea grass to sustain them, officials told the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The Florida Power and Light Company (FPL), the state’s largest electric utility, is contributing $700,000 for a “temporary field response station” to feed the manatees at its plant in Cape Canaveral on the east coast of the state. The money is also for rescue and rehabilitation of distressed manatees, the company said in a news release.
The program has not been tried before. “The eyes of the world are on this,” said wildlife commission Chairman Rodney Barreto. “We’ve got to get it right.”
Officials stress that people should not feed the marine mammals. They say it is illegal to do so, and it leads to an unhealthy association between the animals and food sources.
The new feeding program is intended as a temporary measure to prevent more manatee deaths while the state spends millions of dollars restoring the sea grass beds in areas such as the Indian River Lagoon, which is a critical winter habitat.
There are between 7,000 and 8,000 manatees — also known as sea cows — in Florida, according to state estimates. They are close relatives of elephants and can live up to 65 years, but they reproduce slowly. It’s illegal to harm them, because they are protected by the Endangered Species Act.
More than 1,000 manatees died in Florida waters last year, a record number in a single year. Some were killed by boat strikes and many more were scarred by those collisions. In addition, many starve to death because polluted water kills the sea grass upon which they depend.
The issue facing wildlife officials in the long-term is how to stop fertilizer-filled runoff from sugar farms and other agricultural operations, as well as storm-water and sewage flows from cities, into bays and estuaries, which can lead to the breeding of harmful organisms such as blue-green algae. Warmer water and air temperatures triggered by climate change make the problem worse, many experts say.
“We all know the underlying problem is water quality,” said Larry Williams, Florida state supervisor with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, adding that other marine creatures will soon suffer as well. “They are declining too, just like the manatees are.”
Florida wildlife commission member Mike Sole, who is an executive with FPL’s parent company, NextEra Energy, also said the manatee deaths are “really just a symptom” of the greater pollution problem. “We’ve got to also focus on the cure of water quality,” Sole said.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently announced $481 million in water quality improvement grants throughout the state. Of that, $53 million is being allocated for wastewater treatment in the Indian River Lagoon area.
Barreto, the Florida wildlife commission chairman, said there must be a sustained effort to restore the manatee-friendly sea grass beds and clean up the polluted water causing the problem.