With the arrival of summer, this effort is ending but will probably resume next winter. Many manatees are still stressed by chronic malnutrition which will not go away simply because of warmer weather.
Still, at an online press conference on Thursday, officials said the feeding program — again, never before done with wild animals like manatees — was generally a success.
“Going into this, we had no idea how it would work and if it would work,” said Ron Mezich, a senior Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission official involved in the project. “We haven’t had any discussions about next winter yet.”
Last winter, a record 1,100 manatees died largely of starvation because water pollution from agriculture, septic tanks, urban runoff and other sources diminished their primary source of winter food along the east coast of Florida, especially the Indian River Lagoon which extends from Cape Canaveral to the south. .
So far this year, Florida officials have confirmed 479 manatee deaths, up from more than 600 this time last year. Both are well above the five-year average of 287 manatee deaths during the period.
There are only about 7,520 animals in the wild today, according to the state wildlife commission.
Manatees are gentle, round-tailed giants, sometimes called sea cows, and weigh up to 1,200 pounds (550 kilograms) and live to be around 65 years old. Manatees are the official state marine mammal of Florida and are closely related to elephants.
Although the feeding program is considered a success, many manatees are still weakened by malnutrition and are not recovering immediately, officials said.
“They’re still struggling,” said Martine deWit, a marine mammal vet at the FWC. “That doesn’t mean they’re getting better.”
Dozens of manatees in distress have been rescued and taken to places like SeaWorld in Orlando, zoos and aquariums in Florida and elsewhere around the country. As of Thursday, more than 80 manatees were being cared for at 14 facilities, nearly all of them suffering from starvation.
It’s an unprecedented effort to save an endangered species that has long struggled to cohabit with humans, from the pollution problem to boat strikes.
“We’re all going to keep working to see what we can do better,” said Teresa Calleson of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Besides food, there is an effort to restore the seagrass beds. Since 2009, about 58% of seagrass beds have been lost in the Indian River Lagoon, according to state estimates.
State lawmakers have earmarked about $8 million for restoration efforts, including access to natural springs and the planting of new seagrass beds. However, this will take years and a certain political will.
“What will solve the problem is the restoration of the Indian River Lagoon,” said Tom Reinert, FWC spokesman for the manatee program.
Officials are asking anyone who sees a distressed or dying manatee to call the FWC hotline at 888-404-3922.