TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida officials are planning to take additional actions, which could include a second manatee supplemental feeding program later this year, if natural seagrass growth cannot fulfill the needs of the endangered animals.
During a media conference on Wednesday, experts with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said their initial review of data collected during the first of its type effort over the winter months found no environmental issues created by the program.
From December through March, biologists used more than 200,000 pounds of lettuce in an effort to prevent starvation amongst the giant sea cows in Central Florida.
Experts believe the growth of the herbivores’ dietary plants has been stunted over recent years due to pollution and algal blooms that have led to an unusually high mortality event.
More than 1,100 manatees died in 2021, setting a new state record.
Data provided by the FWC for the first five months of 2022 show the mortality count of the species to be lower than 2021 but much higher than the five-year running average.
"We are still doing a lot of planning and getting ready for next winter and fall," an FWC official said during the media conference. "Depending on what the conditions are like this summer, we could see a similar response and a similar event to this past winter."
Recently biologists have noticed seagrass regrowing in the vital habitat of the Indian River Lagoon, but officials caution any type of algal bloom or significant event could easily wipe away gains, leaving the manatees susceptible without help from humans.
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Members of the mortality response team said they continue to examine data from their four-month-long trial program to possibly replicate the results elsewhere in the state but so far have not solidified plans to expand operations.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates there are only around 7,500 manatees left in Sunshine State.
With Memorial Day weekend here, officials remind boaters to be cautious of the endangered species, and if they see an animal in distress, let the FWC know about it by calling 888-404-3922.