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Gov. DeSantis commits $30 million to save manatees after record number of deaths

manatee eating
PATRICK DOVE/TCPALM
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PTCN/Florida Fish and Wildlife
Millions of dollars will be spent to try and avoid a repeat of 2021 when 1,101 manatees died, mostly from starvation, because agricultural pollutants are killing off sea grass beds, which are the sea cow's main food source. PHOTO: In an effort to help manatees battle the cold temperatures, Florida Power & Light's Cape Canaveral Clean Energy Center has been heating the water on an emergency basis, to prevent as many manatees as possible from dying from the cold. State and federal biologists have been feeding manatees there since mid December to stave off a mass starvation that's been going on in the Indian River Lagoon for more than a year.

Starvation was largely responsible for the 1,101 manatees that died in Florida last year, which set a sad all-time record for one of the Sunshine State's most beloved animals. That grim milestone bested the previous high of 830 sea cow deaths in 2013. Manatee deaths do not appear to be slowing this year, as more than 500 of the Sunshine State’s official Marine Mammal died before May began.

Scientists blame agriculture and development for polluting the rivers where manatees live and where their favorite food grows.

The excess nutrients that runoff from growing fields and backyards send phosphorus and nitrogen into the water, then algae growth is fueled that blocks the sunlight needed by seagrasses to grow.

Manatees feeding
Florida Fish and Wildlife
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Manatees at the Temporary Field Response Station eating lettuce provided by authorized staff as part of a feeding trial. The trial effort is being carefully controlled in order to minimize negative impacts to the habitat or other wildlife. The vegetation offered by government officials has been carefully selected in consultation with manatee nutrition experts. Please remember that feeding manatees can be considered harassment and is prohibited by state and federal law, but due to the Unusual Mortality Event designation there are emergency exceptions that allow for FWC and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff to provide food and/or water to animals impacted by the emergency declaration.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Monday that he will include more than $30 million in next year’s state budget to try and figure out why so many of the gentle giants are dying in Florida waters.

“This historic funding will support important restoration efforts across the state to benefit our manatees and Florida’s natural environment,” DeSantis said. “My administration will continue working to find new and innovative ways to support our native species, like the manatee, so that the generations to come can experience Florida’s natural resources.”

The more than $30 million included in the budget includes:

• $20 million to enhance and expand the network of manatee acute care facilities, restore access to springs, provide habitat restoration in manatee concentrated areas, expand manatee rescue and recovery efforts, and implement pilot projects like the supplemental feeding trials that took place this past winter.

• $5.3 million to expand Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) manatee mortality and response efforts, including 12 new positions.

• $160,000 to support increased aerial surveys.

• $4.7 million in base funding to support manatee acute care facilities and research, rescue, and conservation activities.

Manatee Sanctuary
Florida Fish and Wildlife
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Manatee Sanctuary

“This historic investment in manatee rescue efforts and habitat restoration will expand the state’s critical care network, increase access to warm water environments, and restore access to manatee foraging habitat,” said Eric Sutton, director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “Governor DeSantis has provided great support for addressing the manatee unusual mortality event in the Indian River Lagoon and we appreciate his efforts.”

On Florida’s East Coast, nutrient-laden water from Lake Okeechobee flows down the St. Lucie River into Indian River Lagoon in Brevard County, which topped the state with 33% of the record-setting 1,101 manatee deaths last year. Manatee bones can be found throughout the lagoon there.

Scientists studying the deaths point to lack of forage, mainly seagrass, which is the mainstay of a manatee’s diet. So many manatees were dying in Brevard County last year that scientists decided to take a chance and feed the sea cows romaine lettuce and other leafy greens. Wildlife authorities are studying the results of the feeding program to determine its effectiveness.

Manatee eating
PATRICK DOVE/TCPALM
/
PTCN/ Florida Fish and Wildlife
In an effort to help manatees battle the cold temperatures, Florida Power & Light's Cape Canaveral Clean Energy Center has been heating the water on an emergency basis, to prevent as many manatees as possible from dying from the cold. State and federal biologists have been feeding manatees there since mid December to stave off a mass starvation that's been going on in the Indian River Lagoon for more than a year.

Richard Bartleson, a research scientist at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, said Monday night that he had not seen the specifics of what the $30 million DeSantis has proposed will be spent on, but he hopes that it includes buying more lettuce and other food for manatees on the East Coast – but also paying for manatee-saving efforts in Southwest Florida waters.

He fears a repeat of what happened in the Indian River will start happening in Southwest Florida because the same dynamics are in play.

‘The largest problem manatees face in Southwest Florida is the 100 metric tons of phosphorus coming from Lake Okeechobee via the Peace and Caloosahatchee rivers,” he said. “Coupled with more than 100,000 septic tanks in the rivers’ watersheds that, they leak nutrient-rich water into the rivers, too.”

Sea grass meadows are rapidly disappearing.

“Getting the sea grasses to comes back is a big problem because it doesn’t grow back in a year,” Bartleson said. “No matter how much money you have you may not be able to grow seagrass quickly enough.”

Manatee noses
PATRICK DOVE/TCPALM
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PTCN/Florida Fish and Wildlife

Shawn Hamilton, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FWC), said increasing water quality is essential to the health of the state’s environment, economy, and fish and wildlife.

“The state is focusing on short and long-term science-based strategies to improve water quality,” said Hamilton. “Including expanded monitoring and investment in long-term water quality improvement projects to reduce the amount of nutrients going into our waterways.”

The FWC and the Fish and Wildlife Service announced the formation of a team to investigate the record-setting number of manatee deaths along Florida’s Atlantic coast.

The team is also planning to implement a variety of approaches to quickly help manatees in need of assistance, including more feeding stations and other trial efforts to reduce the number of sea cows in need of rescue.

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health. Sign up for WGCU's monthly environmental newsletter, the Green Flash, today.