In the worst-hit area near the FPL plant this winter was just one dead manatee

Indian River manatee mortality east of Orlando has dropped significantly this winter compared to last year, but authorities have been unable to say why or whether the trend will continue.

In the waters near Florida Power & Light’s power plant, a thermal refuge during winter cold snaps, only one dead manatee is hauled ashore for inspection and disposal.

In contrast, during the first month of last winter, from Dec. 21 to Jan. 20, six dead manatees were pulled from near the FPL plant.

In Brevard County, where aquatic environments have been severely impacted by pollution, harmful algae blooms and seagrass loss, seven manatees died during the same period this winter, compared with 28 last winter.

Authorities have repeatedly said that manatees may have an easier time foraging for seagrass in the warmer months and are generally healthier this winter.

Another theory is that recent winters have weeded out the weaker manatees, leaving behind those that are stronger and can tolerate the harsh conditions even if they don’t get enough to eat.

There is little evidence that the Indus River’s devastated ecosystems, especially seagrass fields, have stabilized enough to be on track for recovery.

“We’re all holding our breath,” Teresa Calleson of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said of the fewer deaths this winter. “We are proceeding with caution here and cautiously optimistic about the future.”

The coming weeks should provide a clearer picture of the death trend. The past two Februarys have been brutal, with Brevard County seeing the highest manatee mortality in a single month: 177 last year and 100 the year before.

By March, Florida’s freshwater and coastal waters had warmed significantly, prompting the more than 1,000 manatees that sometimes gather at the FPL plant to scatter to feed.

The FPL facility is located in the St. Johns Harbor community south of Titusville, on a sprawling industrial body of water where state and federal wildlife agencies are conducting experimental manatee feeding for the second winter.

Last winter, they hand-fed over 200,000 pounds of lettuce. So far this year, the figure is £100,000.

kspear@orlandosentinel.com