Trying Everything, Even Lettuce, to Save Florida’s Beloved Manatees

Indian River Lagoon, Fla. – At first, manatees stay away from romaine lettuce.

It was an extraordinary experiment in tough times: humans dumping pallets of leafy greens to feed Florida’s beloved manatees in the warm waters of the Indian River Lagoon, where decades of pollution have decimated their delicate seagrass diet.

Eventually, a pair of bold manatees approached. With his lips closed—they are distantly related to elephants—he grabbed and munched on lettuce. more followed. On the coldest days, hundreds of people came, and over a three-month feeding period, the hungry mammals ate every scrap of 202,000 pounds of lettuce thrown from above.

Floridians cherish the manatees, the rotting and gentle giants that have long captured the human imagination, but people have failed to care for the animal’s environment, threatening the species’ survival. Now, as manatees are disappearing in great numbers, humans are attempting crisis rescue measures in a desperate attempt to keep them alive.

This cannot be enough. The iconic manatee is in trouble, and with it, a piece of Florida identity.

For more than a century, the state has had a paradoxical relationship with nature. Florida’s lifestyle is synonymous with outdoor activities – but also with massive development that has damaged the natural plumbing of Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades, threatened drinking water supplies and left the state seriously vulnerable to climate change .

The Manatees were a success story, their position being put at risk in 2017 after years of educating sailors to avoid deadly attacks. Hunger has once again put them in trouble.

This photo provided by the Florida Keys News Bureau, an infant manatee nuzzles at its mother on Thursday, March 24, 2022 in Islamorada, Fla. About 7,500 manatees, also known as sea cows, live in Florida waters and are prevalent throughout Florida. keys. They are federally listed as a threatened species. (Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau via AP)

Along Florida’s Atlantic coast, the die-off began last year after the Indian River Lagoon, a 156-mile estuary that was a seasonal manatee refuge, turned into a barren underwater desert. Fertilizer runoff and growth from leaky septic tanks and fields over decades promoted blooms of algae, which blocked sunlight and ate the seagrass that manatees used to eat.

The feeding experiment, conceived and executed by federal and state wildlife officials, and fueled by $116,000 in public donations, was a gamble. Between January 1 and April 1, the number of confirmed deaths fell from 612 in 2021 to 479. In 2020, the figure was 205.

Over the past year, 1,100 Florida manatees died, a record. About 7,500 are believed to remain in the wild.

The drop in deaths this year doesn’t mean hunger has subsided and eating has helped. Dr. Martin de Witt, a veterinarian with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at its Marine Mammal Pathology Laboratory in St. Petersburg, said scientists will spend the summer reviewing environmental conditions, necropsy results and other data to make a more complete assessment.

“It probably had to do with the onset of winter later,” she said of the low early mortality. “And then we had a relatively short winter. So that might have helped some of the manatees.”

Floridians share a special affection for manatees. Threatened with extinction, manatees are “adopted” by people who make charitable donations to support their protection. “Save the Manatee” is one of the state’s most popular specialty license plates. Display the home manatee mailbox.

Smaller cities such as Orange City, which houses Blue Spring State Park, host manatee festivals that draw tourists to places that would otherwise not have many visitors. The most famous is probably the Crystal River on Florida’s Gulf Coast, where people can swim with manatees.

But neither hobbies nor economic interest have prevented humans from posing a deadly threat – first from boat strikes, which have long caused manatee deaths, and now from pollution, which has consumed much of their food supply. has been destroyed.

Everyone agrees on the ideal long-term solution: restoring lagoon habitat through a variety of efforts, from growing and planting new seagrass beds to running sewer systems over septic tanks to improve stormwater drainage. for. But all those projects are expensive and will take years. To critics, the feeding program was inadequate – too late and too limited, in the amount and type of food provided to the animals.

The outlook is not similarly bleak. A few lucky manatees spent the winter 70 miles northeast of the Indian River Lagoon. About halfway between Orlando and Daytona Beach, the animals swam in the gem-toned Blue Spring, where they could escape to the cooler waters and the abundant foliage of the St.

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FILE – A manatee swims in warm water on the Florida Power and Light Discharge Canal, Monday, January 31, 2022, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Wildlife officials said Thursday, April 7 that more than 202,000 pounds (91,600 kilograms) of lettuce have been fed to manatees at a power plant on Florida’s east coast where the animals gather in colder months due to the discharge of warm water. Most of the cost was through donations from around the world. (AP Photo/Lynn Sladkey, FILE)

In January, during Orange City’s annual manatee festival, food trucks hunt soft-shell crab and alligator sausage. Artisans sell manatee-themed wall clocks and soap dishes. Linda Young of Casselberry, Florida, wore a manatee beanie to keep warm. “Manatees are awesome,” his T-shirt declared.

“Everyone in my life, they know me as Manatee Girl,” said 45-year-old Young.

The next day in Blue Spring, Wayne Hartley, a 78-year-old jolly expert at the Save the Manatee Club, sets out to count the animals, as he has done since 1980. When they started, 36 manatees came to winter in the spring. , This year, the season high was 871, a record—and a testament to how some conservation efforts have worked.

Hartley hopes something else is going on: perhaps the manatees that typically take refuge in the Indian River Lagoon are trying to adapt to the loss of seagrass by traveling elsewhere.

“They go back to the East Coast and they’re like, ‘This place is rotten — I’m going back to Blue Spring,'” he said.

Holding a small notebook, he paddled his canoe along the crystalline spring water. Every time he saw a manatee, he would mark his presence in a black felt-tip pen. He often greeted the sea cows by name.

“Monica!”

“Phillis.”

“Oh, that’s precious. Big lady. Blue Spring 140,” he said, identifying her by his official number, which he knew from memory.

Some manatees would move around his canoe, circling in a sort of dance. He keeps a notebook each winter recording census counts. He went on to the Harry Potter naming phase (“Weasley”) and, as a history major, the English kings (“Egbert”). With a moment’s glance, as he was pedaling, he identified manatees by the unique markings on their backs and tails left by the boat’s propeller strike.

“That’s Alice,” he said. “One of those where you wonder why he’s alive. Those scars on his side? They’re so big and so cruel.”

The park regularly visits on cold, foggy days, knowing that’s when most manatees seek out the warmth of spring. Long queues of cars lined the road to enter the park on Monday morning as well.

“Have you seen Annie or Moo Shu?” A woman asked Hartley from one of the inside observation decks. (No, but he had seen Lucille.)

“Floyd and Lenny?” A man wanted to know. (Just whiskers and Nick.)

In the Indian River Lagoon, muddy gray water is much less hospitable. The dry bottom of the lagoon, now made up of little more than sand and horseshoe crabs, is a grim sight.

“I remember when the water was absolutely clear, and you could see pastures of sea grass,” said Katrina Shadix, an environmental activist who fished the lagoon decades ago. “It used to be the most wonderful, beautiful estuary. The ecosystem has collapsed.”

Shaddix and Wanda Jones, a marine biologist, often rented a pontoon boat during the winter to search the more remote corners of the lagoon for manatees in distress to report to the state’s rescue hotline. Rehabilitation facilities were in such high demand this year that they sent manatees from as far away as Ohio to return to health. Staff boat volunteers rescue and raise the animals on a large scale using trailers from as far away as Alaska.

Shaddicks and Jones have urged state wildlife officials to take more dramatic action to save the manatee, including trucking in hydrilla and water hyacinth, the invasive aquatic plant that grows along many Florida waterways, and massive Expand feeding efforts. (Federal law prohibits unauthorized people from feeding manatees and other wild marine mammals.)

Officials counter that would be logistically very difficult – limited feeding testing was already a huge undertaking – and could introduce unwanted new organisms into the lagoon.

On one of his voyages in early March, Jones sailed the boat to a secluded cove on Merritt Island. “This is Manatee Cemetery,” Shadix said.

The manatee bodies dumped by the authorities in 2021 were decomposed there, as the deaths became overwhelming. There was still a foul smell in the air. Bones – ribs, vertebrae, some teeth – were visible through shallow waters cloaked with green algae.

This year, most of the bodies went to landfills. For Hartley in Blue Spring, the toughest days are when state wildlife officials call about a dead manatee and ask him to identify it. This year, it has happened once in February. He identified the woman as Tirma, Blue Spring 775. He had not seen her since 2014.

In 2020, he recalled, he had gone to a marina where a man with a tractor carried a dead body. Hartley recognized this immediately. Amber. Ann’s daughter. Pregnant. Cause of death unknown.

“Amber was a twin with Amanda, and Amber was released,” he said. “So there was a long history.”

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