There are among the 50 to 150 manatees currently gathered at Florida Power & Light Co.’s Power plant in northern Brevard County this week some sea cows that have peanut-shaped heads, a sign of emaciation from starvation.
But Michelle Pasawicz sees mostly positive signs at the Port St. John power plant that the threatened species is rebounding, at least here. They’re actively gobbling up the hand-fed lettuce within the FPL plant’s warm-water discharge area. No sea cow carcasses are in sight. And most importantly, they’re courting one another.
“We’re staying positive as we’re seeing those animals take the food provided to them,” said Pasawicz, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “The manatees to appear to be generally in better shape.”
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Florida and federal wildlife officials suspect manatees may be in better shape going into this winter than last winter because of warmer weather, more vegetation growing back in the area, or in part, the state agency’s feeding efforts. They warn, however, that if coastal waters such as the Indian River Lagoon stay too cold too long, the resulting manatee death toll could become another setback for a species already dying in record numbers.
The National Weather Service forecasts lows in the 30s this weekend for parts of the state.
Meanwhile, biologists such as Pasawicz are checking on the manatees crowding into canals and warm-water discharge areas near power plants to see if they need rescue.
Cold is always a danger to manatees, even in the best of times when there has been plenty of seagrass for them to eat. When water temperatures dip below 68 degrees Fahrenheit for weeks at a time, manatees suffer cold-stress syndrome. That causes weight loss, fat loss, dehydration and other health problems that can kill them weeks later. Juvenile manatees are especially at risk.
Overall manatee deaths in Florida have declined since 2021’s catastrophic mass die-off. According to the latest figures from FWC, at least 344 manatees died in Brevard through Dec. 23, about 44% of last year’s (2022) 783 manatee deaths. In 2021, a record 1,101 manatees died statewide, most from starvation due to long-term pollution-driven seagrass loss.
Only a few manatees have died so far this year, FWC officials said Wednesday, but official statistics won’t be updated until later this week.
The manatee death toll got so bad by the spring of 2021 that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared the die-off an Unusual Mortality Event. As a result, in a first-of-its kind pilot project to try to stave off further starvation, state and federal biologists fed manatees at the FPL plant last winter and through the end of March and are continuing to do so this year.
Manatee deaths from chronic malnutrition has been a winter problem for the past two years. The cold adds an extra stressor to manatees, already physically stressed. That has FWC officers worried about how this winter’s cold will impact already weak, starving manatees.
The agency has urged the general public not to feed or give fresh water to manatees, because it can train them to rely on humans and result in them losing their instincts for finding food.
State and federal wildlife officials have Some 30,000 pounds of romaine lettuce has been hauled to the FPL plant, and another 25,000 pounds is on way, officials said Wednesday.
“Everything is on the way, or in place,” Jon Wallace, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said Wednesday, adding that the feeding will be a long-term effort. “It’s going to last us for several months, into the spring.”
If you see a sick or injured manatee, call FWC’s Wildlife Alert Toll-Free Number: 1-888-404-FWCC (1-888-404-3922), press “7” to speak with an operator.