Cold weather, starvation takes toll on manatees despite biologists’ efforts

The unusual mortality event continues along Florida’s East Coast

Despite biologists’ efforts along Florida’s Indian River Lagoon to mitigate causes of dying manatees, the state reported 97 deaths during January, keeping pace for what could be another significant year for the threatened species.

The amount is far fewer than 170 deaths reported last January but remains well above the month’s five-year average of 82.

Most cases were reported near the troubled Indian River, where biologists have set up a pilot feeding program due to a lack of seagrass.

"Supplemental feeding of manatees will not prevent all manatee mortality due to the ongoing lack of forage available to them in the Indian River Lagoon. But the expectation is that a limited, small-scale pilot study type effort could provide sufficient food to keep the body condition of some manatees above starvation level until they can disperse," Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesperson Carli Segelson said.

The Indian River is one of several sites in Central and South Florida, where the sea cows congregate during the winter months.


In addition to the lack of nutrients, manatees also dealt with a significant cold snap that caused water temperatures to plummet. 

"The arrival of cold weather decreased water temperatures which increased the number of Florida manatees requiring or being considered for rescue along Florida’s Atlantic Coast," FWC biologists reported.

Planning for an influx of injured and sick manatees, SeaWorld Orlando transported several of the mammals to a critical care facility in Ohio to make room for new arrivals.

FWC Biologists expect the high mortality levels to continue at least through winter, with the hope that lessons learned through the pilot feeding program can be replicated throughout the state.

"The small-scale, supplemental feeding effort being piloted this winter may help guide any future supplemental feeding considerations," Segelson said.