As manatee death season looms, here’s another experiment feeding manatees with lettuce

When the state’s wildlife department threw the first handful of lettuce to a starving manatee in the Indian River a year ago, it was an act of desperation driven by a catastrophic death in violation of the Animal Behavior Should Not Be Disturbed environmental golden rule.

A police officer with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission could put a private citizen in jail for such a crime.

The stated goal of providing Florida-grown lettuce to wild manatees is to prevent a repeat of the harsh 2020-21 winter mortality and reduce the number of animals bleeding, bleeding, emaciated and failing organs. Hulks in need of rescue from private zoos, aquariums and theme parks.

Is it any different that the Florida Power & Light Co. plant on Indian River in Brevard County provided an unprecedented supply of lettuce for much of last winter?

The state wildlife department’s hunch answer is the likeliest. But its biologists say they don’t have the science to untangle the intertwined mysteries between the manatee’s incredible resilience and the Indus’ deadly ecology to quantify the difference.

They did point out that compared with 1,101 in 2021, there will be significantly fewer manatee deaths in Florida this year, with 783 as of Dec. 23, the most in a year since records began half a century ago.

But these statistics mask the carnage that was going on.

In 2021, 358 manatee carcasses were recovered from Brevard County waters. This year through Dec. 23, after hand-feeding the animals copious amounts of romaine and other lettuces weighing almost 100 tons equivalent to two M1 Abrams main battle tanks, Brevard recorded just four fewer deaths. %, or 344 people. No other county is anywhere near that tollbooth.

This winter has already brought colder weather, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and its U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partners say they’ve mobilized a more capable lettuce-feeding team than last year.

“Going into this year, we still think of it as an experiment,” said state biologist Ron Mezich, who oversees breeding at the FPL facility. “We are adapting every day, we are looking for new things every day, and our goal remains the same – to reduce mortality and rescue.”

Winter has become the main hunting season for Brevard’s Indian River, a stretch of Atlantic coastal waters along five counties.

Seagrass beds have been eradicated due to the legacy of pollution, leaving too little for the herbivores, sometimes called manatees.

Weakened from starvation, they die in water temperatures of 60 degrees Fahrenheit and below, which is why they congregate by the hundreds in the warm waters of the FPL plant.

State biologists cautiously suspect that the death toll has reached a tipping point and may ease this winter.

In December, the state counted 22 manatee deaths in Brevard County waters. As of December 23 this year, two people had died.

This optimism stems in part from various recent limited observations that Brevard’s manatees are not as affected as they were last year, possibly because they are more successful in foraging during the warmer months.

That may be wishful thinking based on flimsy evidence, said Patros, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club. Another explanation might be that only the more robust manatees lasted so long.

“The most vulnerable manatees are likely to be the most unfortunate to suffer and die first because of the dire conditions that have been left to fester over the years,” Ross said.

Dozens of manatees have been inspected or observed so far, but the status of nearly 1,000 remains unknown, Ross said.

January may be the real indicator of the danger manatees face in Brevard County.

2021 is the deadliest year for manatees on record in Florida, with 73 deaths in the county in January.

In January, the death toll rose to 82. More than half of them (45) were found in Indian River waters near Florida Power & Light.

During the first three weeks of the month, bodies were hauled away sporadically. As winter deepened, they arrived in waves: 5 on the 21st, 5 on the 27th, 11 on the 28th, 5 on the 29th, and 5 on the 31st. They were taken ashore on a public boat ramp just a football field away from the power plant.

“I could easily risk saying that if they hadn’t been fed last winter, it would have been worse,” Ross said.

Last winter’s February was Brevard’s deadliest month with 177 fatalities.

As January and February approach, Rose said he is encouraging state and federal wildlife agencies at the FPL plant to provide manatees with more lettuce if, as they did last winter, they eat all the scraps until four Spots of one-fifth of an inch.

“We’d like to see enough lettuce if the manatees show a willingness to leave some lettuce behind,” Ross said. “If they eat everything you feed them, then they want more and need more.”

He would also like to see regular use of water heaters installed at feeding points, as a backup for occasional power plant shutdowns and when warm water is not being discharged.

The feeding site is nearly a mile from the warm water discharge, and the two sites are separated by a long pier.

The manatees reacted last January when the plant and its hot water discharge were temporarily shut down and heaters at feeding points were turned on, Ross said.

“I was actually there until January 19 when the heaters came on and after they went on, more manatees started showing up and the numbers kept increasing because they were more than happy to eat and warm water there.”

So far, he said, manatees have had to make a “horrible choice” between keeping warm at the farm or finding food at the farm.

kspear@orlandosentinel.com