FL. — The effort to feed thousands of pounds of lettuce to starving manatees in Florida officially ended for the winter season on Wednesday, March 29, 2023.
This comes as deaths of marine mammals appear to be slowing despite the long-term threat of pollution to their main food source, seagrass.
State and federal wildlife officials said during an online news conference that just under 400,000 pounds of lettuce were provided to hundreds of manatees along the east coast for the winter.
It was the second year of the experimental feeding program that was launched because of at least 11 hundred manatee deaths in 2021.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission,more than 2,000 manatees have died mostly of starvation from January 2021 through March 10, 2023,
Thus far this season, wildlife officials have counted 163 deaths. They attribute the slowdown to various factors including the partial recovery of seagrass and animals in better physical condition than in the past.
Manatees are Florida's official state marine mammal but are listed as a threatened species.
They face peril from boat strikes and toxic red tide algae outbreaks along the state's Gulf coast.
There are enhanced efforts to rehabilitate malnourished manatees that are recovered alive. As of Wednesday, there were 84 manatees at rehab sites around the country, including 72 in Florida.
Of that total, there are 15 considered non-releasable because of their permanently fragile health.
The total cost of this season's feeding program was about $250,000, most of which was covered by donations from people around the country to a nonprofit affiliated with the FWC.
It's unclear whether officials will operate the program again next winter.
One key measure will be an ongoing comprehensive count of the overall Florida manatee population.
Previous estimates have placed the number of manatees at about 7,500 around the state.
Last year, Florida legislators approved about $8 million for several habitat restoration projects around the state.
Another $19.5 million in federal funding was recently earmarked for 33 projects ranging from stormwater treatment upgrades to filter systems that remove harmful nitrates from water that goes into the Indian River Lagoon.
It will take time to assess how much impact the starvation event will have on manatees in the future.