The West Indian manatee may mean little to most of the nation’s marine industry, but if you’re a dealer (or boater) in America’s number one boating state, manatees are a big part of your life and a crisis is now unfolding. They’re starving to death, but there’s hope a stop-gap program of feeding them lettuce could be the saving strategy.
Florida’s manatees are dying at a record pace. And, while the Sunshine State’s boaters are often erroneously cited as the biggest threat to manatees, there really isn’t anyone who’d intentionally harm one of these docile mammals. And, clearly, boaters aren’t responsible for this current dilemma.
Specifically, data for 2021 indicates there were 1,101 recorded manatee deaths in the state. Shockingly, that’s nearly twice the five-year average of 625, according to the Florida Wildlife Commission (FWC). Of the 2021 total, 103 were determined watercraft-related. Rather, the manatees are overwhelmingly starving to death.
Enter the latest experiment to save the sea cows - offer them romaine lettuce. It’s taking place at a Florida Power & Light plant in the Indian River Lagoon near Cape Canaveral, on Florida’s east coast, where manatees congregate in cold winter months because of the warm water discharge from the plant. It’s also where most of the deceased manatees have been found, so it’s the current epicenter of manatee deaths.
In recent years, poor water quality in the Lagoon has led to harmful algae blooms (HABs) triggering widespread seagrass loss. Indeed, FWC reports "most of the seagrass in the Indian River Lagoon has disappeared," and the seagrass is the manatee’s staple food. Essentially, the algal blooms reduce the amount of light into the water that allows seagrass and other aquatic plant life to grow.
It’s estimated that Florida is losing up to two football fields worth of seagrass every hour. For boating and fishing interests it’s projected that the continued loss of seagrass beds means lost nurseries and critical habitat for fish and invertebrates, plus decreased carbon sequestration and lost food sources for endangered species, like sea turtles. To that point, it’s bad news for the economy, too. It’s believed seagrass beds contributed almost $14 million to the Florida Keys alone by providing habitat for yellowtail snapper, shrimp, spiny lobster and many more.
As is well known, virtually everywhere in the nation now experiences some form of algae bloom problem in lakes and waterway. Moreover, in all cases, the number one cause is well known - phosphorus and nitrogen runoff from farm fertilizers, followed by urban sewage problems.
It's notable that in December, several environmental groups, including the Save the Manatee Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife declared their intent to sue the Environmental Protection Agency over the manatee deaths. They will contend the agency failed to protect the mammals from water pollution. And, the truth is EPA was ordered by Congress years ago to address the growing algae problems and has failed to act in a timely manner.
Manatees have long struggled to survive. Once listed as “Endangered,” the population of these round-tailed animals has recovered so well as to be down listed to “Threatened.” Protective actions to help these mammals avoid collisions with boaters, for example, have resulted in no-wake manatee zones throughout Florida with violations punishable by significant fines. Regardless of fines, no boater wants to hurt a manatee and are respectful of the speed zones.
Warning: The FWC’s lettuce experiment is of great interest to everyone, boater or not. But, as of now, feeding any wild animal in Florida remains illegal and should not be done. Estimates are there’s still more than 7520 manatees in Florida and any calls for putting these sea cows back up to “endangered” status, as has been voiced in some quarters, is not currently necessary.