Feb 15, 2023 - News

Fewer Florida manatees are dying of starvation this winter

Feeding lettuce to manatees in critical care at  ZooTampa

A manatee care team member feeds lettuces to manatees in critical care at ZooTampa in 2021. Photo: Eva Marie Uzcategui AFP via Getty Images

Florida wildlife officials are seeing manatee fatalities dwindle this winter after bringing back a feeding program for a second year.

  • But some experts worry this solution isn't sustainable in the long term.

By the numbers: 79 Florida manatee deaths were reported between Jan. 1 and Feb. 3 of this year, per the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

  • That's a 48% decline from the same time period the year before, and a more than 60% drop from 2021, when a record 1,100 manatees starved to death in Florida.

Why it matters: Manatees aren't just gentle giants that Floridians love — the aquatic herbivores play a vital role as "environmental engineers" in local waterways, University of Miami marine biologist Jill Richardson tells Axios Today.

  • Adult manatees need 100-200 pounds of seagrass a day to survive, and because they consume the fastest-growing seagrass, it allows for greater aquatic biodiversity.

Catch up quick: State wildlife officials first set up a feeding program at Florida Power & Light Company's Cape Canaveral Energy Center for the 2021-2022 winter season. They brought it back this winter to help manatees get through the first December cold front.

  • Warm water runoff from the facility attracts many of the marine mammals, often called "sea cows."
  • This winter, FWC has already fed more than 175,000 pounds of romaine lettuce to manatees.

Yes, but: Richardson believes that such an approach will only help temporarily.

  • "It all starts with the ecosystem as the foundation," Richardson said. "If we don't really get working hard on improving water quality in our shallow water bays and shallow water coast ecosystems, it's like putting a Band-Aid on a really big problem."

Between the lines: Manatees' natural habitats including warm springs and plentiful seagrass have been devastated by human development and environmental pollution.

What we're watching: The agency is expected to make a decision on the petition by this month.

Be smart: It's still illegal for people to feed manatees, and humans remain the mammals' greatest threat.

Hear the entire conversation with Jill Richardson on the Axios Today podcast.

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