TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Winter has continued to be harsh for the Florida West Indian manatee as the Unusual Mortality Event (UME) continues on the East Coast and water temperatures have cooled over the past few weeks.
The Florida Wish and Wildlife Conservation Commission held an update on UME on Wednesday and reported that a total of 97 manatees had died in the state so far this year, as of Jan. 28.
The FWC and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continue their joint unified command during the ongoing EMU at a temporary field station at Florida Power and Light’s Cape Canaveral Clean Energy Center, where there is also a feeding site temporary for manatees. Officials spoke about their ongoing efforts.
Martine de Wit, a manatee research scientist at the FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, said this winter is not a situation like 2010, when there was a catastrophic cold weather event in the state. On the contrary, he called it a “typical Florida winter.”
“But why we’re seeing these issues with manatees on the Atlantic coast right now, especially in the central region, is that these animals are compromised. It’s an ongoing famine event and many of these animals have been struggling with suboptimal nutrition for probably over a year now,” she said.
de Wit said that when temperatures are colder, manatees should normally be able to handle it, but “now when their health is not optimal, they are unfortunately affected by it.”
When asked if all of the deaths were due to starvation, de Wit clarified that because manatee deaths are currently so high, they don’t perform autopsies on all carcasses. She said their approach is to take a number of them for health surveys.
In what researchers have seen, starvation is the most common cause of death right now, according to de Wit.
Andy Garrett of FWC and the Joint Unified Command Rescue and Recovery Branch said that in addition to seeing more dead manatees, they are seeing more in distress on the east coast.
“Unfortunately with the cold comes animals congregating in large numbers. So hundreds of animals at the hot water site. So being able to catch just one animal in distress among hundreds of animals has been a challenge for us,” he said.
Rehabilitation facility capacity also continues to be an issue for them, Garrett said, as SeaWorld is the only facility that is currently not at full capacity, although manatees are released when they are well.
Garrett said that historically manatees are released near where they were rescued, but that was not the case.
“But in this situation with the way UME is and the lack of fodder, we are moving animals,” he said. “Adult animals are moved further south, where we know they will have fodder. Young manatees, rescued as cubs, that we would normally release near the power plant, are released into Blue Springs State Park where we know there is plenty of vegetation to forge.
The temporary food response at Cape Canaveral Energy Center is underway. Manatees are fed romaine lettuce and butter, as well as cabbage, as instructed by experts who rehabilitate manatees.
According to Ron Mezich of FWC and the head of the Joint Unified Command Supply Branch, more food is being given to manatees at the site as more arrive in cold weather.
While it is impossible to ensure that every manatee is fed, as they estimated they saw 785 animals on Jan. 30, a cold day, officials said lettuce was being fed to the animals.
Staff are working on taking pictures of manatees to identify them as winter progresses. Dr. Tom Reinert, FWC and Joint Unified Command spokesman, said they plan to feed the manatees next year as deaths continue to rise and seagrass shortages continue.
More updates are now expected every week. All dead or distressed manatees should be reported to the FWC Wildlife Alert hotline 888-404-FWCC.