The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have announced a “supplemental feeding” plan to save malnourished manatees on the Atlantic coast.

The starving sea cows are dying at an alarming rate because of the lack of seagrass, which they rely on as their main food source.

About 10% of the Florida population has died this year. That’s over 1,000 manatees, breaking the highest record from 2013 of 830 deaths.

“Knowing that there is no seagrass in the Indian River Lagoon… for them to recover and survive through the winter. That emergency decision to supplement them was made,” Martine deWit, a marine mammal veterinarian for the FWC, said.

Because of this record-breaking event, the FWC is calling it an unusual mortality event which started a year ago last December. More manatees are dying than what the necropsy lab can accommodate for.

“If you look at the ones that we have necropsied, … at the peak of the mortality in the winter, almost all of them showed those signs of starvation,” deWit said.

In a press release from the Save the Manatee Club, Executive Director Partick Rose said “this will be a significant move to help prevent another severe loss of manatees due to starvation that occurred last winter.”

Rose also stressed that feeding manatees otherwise is still illegal.

Jim Waymer is an environmental reporter for Florida Today, who’s been covering stories on the IRL and manatee deaths. He shared his kayaking experience while gathering information for his articles.

“The water was crystal clear, … And I can't say that I saw a blade of seagrass. But I saw some carcasses floating in the water when we were just paddling out there,” Waymer said.

The FWC has released limited information on the supplemental feeding that will take place this winter near the power plant at Cape Canaveral.  

Waymer explained that as Florida’s developed, the warm natural springs have declined, so now in the winter, manatees have started to congregate at the power plants.

“[It’s] keeping them far north where they might not otherwise be 100 years ago, in the winter, so when they go out … with their young looking for seagrass and they venture too far from that warm water discharge, they can be subject to cold stress,” Waymer said.

Spencer Fire, a professor specializing in the effects of harmful algal blooms on marine mammals at Florida Tech, explained that when manatees undergo cold stress, their blood vessels constrict. This cuts off blood circulation and results in lesions and dead tissue.

“If you want to monitor the health of an ecosystem, like the IRL, you can look to long lived large body organisms like manatees, because any health impacts that they're having are a possible early warning sign for humans,” Fire said.

The FWC is hopeful that the unusual mortality event is nearing an end. To support the FWC’s manatee rescues and research, Florida residents can get a “Save the Manatee” license plate the next time they need to renew their tag. For those who aren’t residents, Manatee decals are available at your local tax collector’s office with a $5 donation.

While supplemental feeding is experimental and on a small scale, organizations such as the Marine Resources Council, Restore Our Shores and Save Our Indian River Lagoon Program are working on various projects to improve the water quality of the IRL which will in turn help with seagrass restoration.

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