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Manatee feeding experience begins slowly as cold weather looms

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Manatee feeding experience begins slowly as cold weather looms

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An unprecedented experimental attempt to feed manatees facing starvation in Florida got off to a slow start, but wildlife officials expressed optimism Thursday that it will work as cold weather pushes marine mammals toward warmer waters.

A feeding station established along the state’s east coast has yet to lure wild manatees with romaine lettuce, even though the animals will eat it in captivity, officials told a conference. press held at a distance.

Water pollution from agricultural, urban and other sources has triggered algal blooms that have decimated the seagrass beds on which manatees depend, resulting in a record 1,101 manatee deaths largely due to starvation in 2021. The typical five-year average is around 625 deaths.

This prompted the Lettuce Feeding Program, which is part of a joint manatee fatality response group led by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. It remains a violation of state and federal laws for people who feed manatees themselves.

“We have not documented any animals feeding on lettuce,” said Ron Mezich, head of the joint effort’s supply arm. “We know that manatees eat lettuce.”

During the winter months, hundreds of manatees tend to congregate in the warmer waters of natural springs and power plant dumps. Because this winter has been unusually mild in Florida so far, the animals have been more dispersed.

“They are moving, but they are not yet pressured by the cold temperatures,” said Tom Reinert, FWC southern regional director. “We expect that to happen.”

In addition to the feeding experience, officials work with a number of facilities to rehabilitate distressed manatees that are found alive. These include Florida Zoos, SeaWorld Theme Park, and Marine Aquariums. There were 159 manatees rescued in 2021, some of whom require extended care and others who were returned to the wild, officials said.

“Our facilities are at or near capacity,” said Andy Garrett, chief rescue and recovery officer. “These animals need long-term care. It’s been a tremendous amount of work so far.”

There are currently at least 7,520 manatees in Florida waters, according to state statistics. The slow-moving, round-tailed mammals have rebounded enough to list them as a threatened rather than endangered species, although an effort is underway to restore the endangered label given starvation deaths.

Authorities are also using $8 million in public funds for several projects to restore manatee habitat and plant new seagrass beds, but it’s a slow process and won’t ultimately solve the problem until the polluted waters don’t. will not be improved.

People can report any manatees they see that may be in distress by calling a wildlife hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922). Other ways to help are donating money through a state-sponsored fund or purchasing a Save the Manatee vehicle license plate.

That’s better than feeding the manatees personally, which does more harm than good because the animals associate humans with food, officials say. Humans and manatees have struggled to coexist for decades.

“It’s a very serious situation,” Reinert said. “Use your dollars, not lettuce heads.”

Manatee feeding experience begins slowly as cold weather looms

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