Wildlife officials halt temporary manatee feeding program as warm weather arrives

Warmer weather is keeping Florida manatees moving, so the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will halt its temporary feeding program on Friday.

The state has been feeding lettuce to manatees for the past three months to get them through the winter after a record 565 deaths in 2021. Manatee experts said they were starving to death from the deaths of the seagrass beds, particularly along the east coast. So FWC worked with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to set up a pilot program on the east coast to feed manatees during the winter.

“When we had our coldest weather this winter, we counted over 800 animals at the supplemental feeding site,” said Ron Mezich of FWC’s Joint Unified Command Supply Branch.

During the warmer months, FWC said manatees move from their warm water havens to areas with more abundant food sources, so feeding is not critical during this time. FWC said in an online press conference Wednesday that they don’t yet know how much the extra food has helped.

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“It’s really difficult to track individual animals, especially when you have hundreds of animals on site. We don’t know on a daily basis who attends and who doesn’t for the most part, except for a few easily identifiable animals. “, said Mezich.

FWC said Thursday they believe the joint operation has had several successes with the program, but did not go into specifics, saying more details will be shared in a press conference update on April 7. at 10 o’clock.

Workers have dropped more than 201,000 pounds or more than 100 tons of mixed product into the water since January 20, when the manatees began feeding. FWC said it cost $105,504.15 for the products from December 15, 2021 to March 15, 2022, adding that $264 of that total was paid for with Incident Command System funds and the rest through donations to the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida.

“They need to eat 10 to 15 percent of their body weight a day, which for a grown adult can be over 100 pounds,” said Lisa Smith, animal care manager at ZooTampa, who helps injured manatees and orphans at zoo manatee. rehabilitation center.

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ZooTampa sent people to the east coast to help feed and care for the manatees.

“We were able to send crew members to help out on the east coast with some transportation, but thankfully our area here hasn’t seen much of an effect,” Smith said. “It feels like working with Fish and Wildlife like it’s been an absolutely devastating year for manatees. It’s really hard to hear that they’re finding so many deaths, especially so many deaths in one day.”

An FWC spokesperson said the joint operation’s winter feeding program was beginning to reduce operations to a spring and summer response mode. As the feeding program winds down after this week, FWC and manatee custodians said their work to turn the tide across the state doesn’t end.

“They weren’t surviving the way they should, so this is really an important step to keep the population alive while we think about a long-term plan for them,” Smith said.

Now the FWC experts will see how the trial worked and what lessons they learned from it. FWC said they would regroup after two weeks and see how they wanted to move the feeding program forward for next winter.

So far this year, 465 manatees have died in Florida, according to FWC figures.

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