According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, manatees on Florida’s east coast have starved to death in record numbers over the past two years, but have fared well during the recent cold snap.
“We are pleased to report that we have not documented any manatee carcasses or manatees in distress,” said Michelle Pasawicz, FWC’s manatee management program director. She and her team have been watching animals congregate at feeding stations and warm water discharges at the Florida Power and Light Cape Canaveral Energy Center.
“They didn’t show any obvious signs of pain or wasting,” Pasawicz said. “Last year, we did see sideways swimming, facial tremors, and bone structure. This year, we haven’t seen any animals showing these signs, but we can’t tell their full health just from these observations at the surface.”
The FWC’s Ron Mezich added, “We know some animals are underweight and we expect to see an increase in mortality due to the cold front later this week.”
The FWC set up a feeding station near the power plant last year in response to a spike in manatee deaths from starvation. Manatee mortality has risen sharply over the past two years, bringing the total to 1,101 in 2021—significantly higher than the five-year average of 682.
69 of the deaths were recorded in Broward County and 36 in Palm Beach County. The death rate has declined this year, to 783 as of December 23.
Last winter, manatees chewed 200,000 pounds of lettuce at the feeding station, a 1,000-foot by 300-foot area near the power plant’s outflow pipes. Although there are many warm-water discharge sites across the state where manatees congregate in cold weather, the Cape Canaveral site is the only one used as a feeding site, in part because of its size.
“Animals can get a little aggressive and smaller animals stay away from food [at smaller sites]’, said Ron Mezich of the FWC. The cause of the Cape Earl Energy Center. “
Wildlife officials began feeding on December 16 this year. This week, Pasawicz said there were between 10 and 29 animals at the feeding site. Last year, feeding sites averaged 150 manatees per day, with a maximum of 800. Many of these animals are expected to eventually return.
During the cold snap, ambient water temperatures in the Cape Canaveral area plummeted to 51 degrees Fahrenheit. Mezic said the water was about 90 degrees Fahrenheit as it came out of the drain, making the enclosure 12 to 15 degrees warmer than the ambient water temperature, so it was 64 to 68 degrees during the most extreme hours of the cold snap. .
Before the cold snap, officials observed some tagged manatees between the Sebastian River and Broward County. “They’re moving south. That’s a good sign that they’re able to do that before the cold front hits,” Mezich said.
East Coast manatees have starved to death due to seagrass death in several estuaries, especially along the Indian River Lagoon, which runs about 140 miles north of Stewart along the state’s east coast near New Smyrna Beach.
The animals’ health has improved compared to last year, Mezich said, in part because “this year the mosquito lagoon provides some forage — and we know they take advantage of that.
“The sooner we can get Indian River Lagoon closer to where it can support these animals, the better off life will be for the manatees and for us,” he said.
FWC’s Tom Reinert added: “We’re not going to fix the seagrass situation in the Indus Lagoon overnight or in a year. Those seagrasses will take years to recover. It depends on a lot of things that are out of our control. So, some optimism, but It’s not over yet, and it could be a tough year for manatees along the Atlantic coast.”