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Manatees still face obstacles, but experts say more help is coming

The FWC is urging anybody who sees a manatee in distress to call 1-888-404-3922.

TAMPA, Fla. — Wildlife workers have updated their response to the unusual mortality event, or UME, in an effort to address the sharp increase in manatee deaths over the past two years.

Unfortunately, they say, sea cows are still showing signs of starvation and malnutrition.

But there are some hopeful developments, too.

“Even though I think our manatees that were dying from starvation over the winter, we’re back close to a more normal level of mortality – still, slightly elevated. But there are other threats are still remaining out there,” said FWC’s Tom Reinert. “Watercraft collision. Entanglement. Those are still out there. So, we want people to be mindful of that.”

As the sea cows have ventured back into their warm, more natural habitat, some are finding sea grass to feed on, but others continue to suffer from malnutrition with 89 still currently in rehab.

“Animals that have now made it through two winters of low food resources will still be stressed. So, I expect potentially still higher above normal mortalities next winter,” said Reinert. “But we are going to keep an eye on that for sure.”

As the team evaluates this past winter’s lettuce feeding program at the FPL power plant near Cape Canaveral, team members are also working to add more partners.

Their goal is to double capacity from the 100 spaces currently available for rescue and rehab.

“Some very productive discussions coming out of that,” said Terri Calleson with the Manatee Rescue Partnership. “And I think we are going to find ourselves in a much better place before this winter.”

For now, outside of food, the biggest concern, say wildlife workers, is the summer boating season.

FWC is enforcing speed zones, some of which take effect during the summer months.

They also recommend boaters wear polarized sunglasses to better see manatees under the water line or ripples in the water which can indicate a sea cow might be close by. 

“Big boating weekend coming up with July 4 but throughout the summer it’s the boating season so let’s try to help everybody stay as vigilant as possible out there,” said Reinert.

“The gas prices that don’t seem to have decreased boating activities significantly in Florida. So, we’re still seeing those interactions and we are still asking that people slow down and look out for our manatees,” said John Wallace with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Wildlife workers say manatees that have been fully rehabilitated are being released back into regions of the state where they know there is an ample food supply in order to give the sea cows a fighting chance.

“I don’t know that there’s any off-season for the folks that work in Manatee rescue rehab,” said Calleson. “And there’s really no off-season for us in terms of trying to better our response to this UME event.”

Anyone who sees what they believe is a manatee in distress, or unfortunately dead, is asked to contact FWC at 1-888-404-FWCC (1-888-404-3922).

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