ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Last year was the deadliest year on record for Florida manatees, with 1,101 reported deaths. There may be an even greater die-off if researchers don't find a way to support the animals' habitats and keep them alive.
That's why wildlife experts from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) teamed up to form a manatee recovery unified command.
On Thursday, they explained what scientists are doing in response to the "unusual mortality event" for manatees on the east coast of Florida. Their research is focused on the Indian River Lagoon, which is considered a prime area for manatees in the region.
While 640 manatees, noted in FWC's 2021 final mortality report, had natural, perinatal or watercraft-related deaths, experts say the mammals off the Atlantic coast are dying due to a lack of food.
As FWC's Ron Mezich explained, algae blooms block the light needed for seagrass to grow, meaning that manatees don't have enough of the plants to eat.
“The real issue is there is no seagrass or any alternative vegetation for that matter…a lot of the lagoon looks like a desert," added Dr. Martine de Wit, the lead veterinarian for this event.
“We do not have any food resources that’s why we are seeing these problems of manatees starving to death."
To directly address this issue, the team is working on a supplemental feeding project where lettuce is offered to manatees in the Indian River Lagoon. So far, the animals have not recognized or accepted the lettuce as food, which is expected, Mezich explained. He said team members will continue to adjust their efforts in how they offer the food to the manatees and is hopeful they will eventually find a method that sticks.
Another area of concern, the panelists added, is that rehabilitation facilities for the animals are at or near capacity.
Andy Garrett from the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute said a record 159 manatees were rescued in 2021. In the past month, there have been 23 rescues.
“Some of these animals are coming in really bad states. They’re not animals that can be turned around in a few days or a few weeks like maybe during like a red tide event. These are animals that need long-term care of a month or even over a year," he explained.
ZooTampa and Clearwater Marine Aquarium are among the local partners that provide rescue and transport assistance to the manatee recovery team. The Marine Outpath Biology Lab in St. Petersburg is also used to perform necropsies — or animal autopsies — and send research back to further recovery efforts.
If you see a dead, sick, or injured manatee you are asked to contact the FWC's Wildlife Alert Hotline at 1-888-404-3922 or by dialing #FWC on a cell phone.