TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — According to wildlife experts, the lettuce feeding trial for manatees facing starvation off Florida's east coast has, so far, been successful. It's a sign of hope for continued efforts to protect the animals going forward.
In 2021, an unusual mortality event (UME) was declared after hundreds of starving manatees were discovered along the state's coasts. By the end of the year, more than 1,100 deaths were reported – the most ever.
On Wednesday, wildlife experts gave an update on their latest efforts to protect the sea cows. They said while the feeding trial is definitely not a permanent solution, each manatee they save from starvation or even rehabilitation is seen as a small victory
FWC's Ron Mezich said the response team provides about 20,000 pounds of lettuce a week to manatees in Florida's Indian River Lagoon since the animals started eating it on Jan. 20. Romaine and butter lettuce are their favorites.
Manatees typically gather in the warm waters of the lagoon when the weather gets cold. So, with the fluctuating temperatures, the number of animals stopping by the center to eat each day has varied, Mezich explained.
He added that the feeding site saw about 500 animals on Tuesday as opposed to last Sunday when it saw a low of about 60. According to experts, as many as 800 manatees have gathered in a day to eat at the center.
Mezich said he doesn't know exactly how long the trial will go, but added the team will remain on-site as long as there's a chance for cold weather. He expects that will be at least through the end of March.
So, why are manatees dying at such high rates off the Atlantic coast? FWC says it is still investigating but that an initial assessment indicated a high number are emaciated due to a decline in seagrass and macroalgae.
Seagrass, like other plants, needs sunlight to grow; but persistent algal blooms have stunted its ability to do so dramatically. As a result, the primary food source for manatees has been scarce.
As far as the long-term restoration of the manatees' natural food source, FWC's Tom Reinert says efforts are still in the planning stages.
Wildlife experts explained that lettuce for the manatees can cost about $.60 per pound. And with the manatees eating about 20,000 pounds of lettuce a week, that cost can add up.
You can donate to the manatee supplemental feeding trial here. Experts add that you should support efforts through donations of money, not food, as it can't be processed and could be harmful to the animals.