By David Fleshler
Manatees started eating lettuce being offered to them by wildlife officers this week, in the first success of an unprecedented effort to prevent another season of starvation.
The effort to feed them began in November near the Florida Power & Light plant in the Indian River Lagoon. But it took place without any known success until Thursday, when a group of manatees appeared to consume about 450 pounds of bibb and romaine lettuce.
“We had a couple at the site who decided they were going to try the produce as food source and found it palatable,” said Ron Mezich, imperiled species management section leader for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, in a conference call Friday with reporters. “And once they started eating, that was the trigger for the other animals.”
A record 1,101 manatees died last year, most from starvation in the Indian River Lagoon area, according to the state wildlife commission. State and federal officials set up a unified command last November to address the manatee deaths, increasing patrols, beefing up rescue efforts for manatees in distress and setting up a system to feed them.
A video of the event showed two manatees poking their snouts out of the water to gobble on the lettuce put out in PVC enclosures. Wildlife officers designed the system to prevent the manatees from associated people or boats with food.
About 35 manatees appeared to be around the feeding site. Several hundred have been seen in recent days around the power plant, where the go in cold weather for the warmth of its discharge zone.
Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, called the manatees’ actions a positive development but said the starvation problem remains widespread.
“I am encouraged that some feeding is occurring” he said. “I do believe that with so many malnourished manatees and pending cold weather they need to expand their food distribution locations and practices.”
During time around the Indian River Lagoon on Thursday, he said “most of the manatees are quite thin and eating every leaf they can get to.”
Although the manatees’ decision to accept the food was an encouraging sign, officials stressed that the feeding effort is a stop-gap measure that can’t substitute for a solution to the lagoon’s severe water pollution.
“Certainly, the developments of the last couple of days are exciting for us, but it’s not going to solve the problems that led us to be here on this day,” said Tom Reinert, the state wildlife commission’s south region director. “Long term, the health of the Indian River Lagoon is first and foremost. We need a healthy lagoon to support the seagrasses that support the manatee population. That’s a long-term project and it’s underway.”
Huge areas of seagrass, the main food for manatees, have died in the lagoon, largely because of polluted water washing into the water from land and from Lake Okeechobee. The flow of water into the lagoon has been dramatically altered over the past century to clear land for farms and cities, with the construction of canals, including one that allowed Lake Okeechobee’s water, algae and sediment to flow into the lagoon, which hadn’t previously been connected to the lake.
“Unfortunately, manatees this winter will still suffer ill effects from the lack of forage,” Reinert said. “We can’t feed all of them. But we’re hoping these efforts will help stave off some of the worst cases and have a positive benefit.”
David Fleshler is the environmental reporter for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. He can be reached at email@example.com
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.
(Display photo courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife / South Florida Sun Sentinel)