$30 million of Florida state budget will be used to help manatees, governor says

Millions of dollars from Florida's state budget will be funneled into projects to protect manatees and their habitats as their population faces high death rates.

On Monday morning, Gov. Ron DeSantis pledged $30 million to the effort, adding that it's a record amount and an increase of more than $17 million over last year's manatee funding. 

"It will enhance and expand the network of acute care facilities…to treat injured and distressed manatees," he explained during his announcement at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. "The funding will also support restoration efforts for manatee access to Florida's warm spring waters, habitat restoration in areas with high manatee populations, manatee rescue, and recovery efforts and pilot projects like the supplemental feeding that FWC conducted this past winter."

Some of that money could be headed to The David A. Straz Manatee Critical Care Center at ZooTampa at Lowry Park. 

"We are so happy and excited and grateful to the governor," said Cynthia Stringfield, of ZooTampa. "We’ve been waiting for this moment to hear what was going to happen." 

Stringfield said they hadn’t been informed Monday of just how much money might come to the facility. It’s one of only two in the state that treats manatee calves.

"We have a number of orphans that we have raised ever since they were brand new," said Stringfield. "So having extra space means that many more manatees can be saved."

The extra money will also go to habitat restoration where manatees are highly concentrated. In order to expand manatee rescue and response efforts, the state will hire 12 additional people.

Wildlife officials said more than 202,000 pounds of lettuce have been fed to manatees at a power plant on Florida’s east coast where the animals gather in cold months because of the warm water discharge. Most of the cost was through donations from around the world.

Here’s a breakdown of the funding supplied by the governor’s office:

  1. $20 million to enhance and expand the network of manatee acute care facilities, restore access to springs, provide habitat restoration in manatee concentrated areas, expand manatee rescue and recovery efforts, and implement pilot projects like the supplemental feeding trials that took place this past winter.
  2. $5.3 million to expand Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) manatee mortality and response efforts, including 12 new positions.
  3. $160,000 to support increased aerial surveys.
  4. $4.7 million in base funding to support manatee acute care facilities and research, rescue, and conservation activities.

Last winter, a record 1,100 manatees died largely from starvation because water pollution from the agricultural, septic tanks, urban runoff, and other sources has diminished their main winter food source along Florida’s east coast, especially the Indian River Lagoon that stretches from Cape Canaveral to the south.

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As of Feb. 22, a total of 527 manatees have died this year. Among them, 317 occurred in Brevard County. This time last year, 694 manatees died. Both are well above the five-year average of 287 manatee deaths in the time period.

Although the feeding program is seen as a success, many manatees are still debilitated from malnutrition and won’t immediately recover, officials said. As in 2021, the vast majority of manatee deaths this year have been associated with a lack of natural seagrass, which has been depleted because of poor water quality and algae blooms. Seagrass beds are prime foraging areas for manatees.

"They are still in trouble," said Martine DeWit, a marine mammal veterinarian with the FWC. "It does not mean they are getting better."

Dozens of distressed manatees have been rescued and taken to places like SeaWorld in Orlando, zoos, and aquariums in Florida and elsewhere around the country.

READ: Florida commissioner suggests killing manatees might help save the marine species

As manatees are on the move, experts are pointing to concerns about boating collisions As temperatures go up, boaters are being advised to watch for slow-moving manatees that continue to die at a higher-than-normal rate, mostly because of starvation, despite the feeding program's efforts.

Florida manatees had been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1973. Manatees were listed as endangered until 2017, when they were downlisted to "threatened."

If you see a sick, injured, distressed, or dead manatee, you’re urged to call the FWC wildlife alert hotline by calling 888-404-FWCC (3922).

FWC offered boaters the following tips to help keep manatees safe:

  • Observe manatees from a distance to limit disturbance. Disturbing manatees at their warm-water sites may cause them to leave these areas during the winter.
  • Follow posted manatee protection zones.
  • Wear polarized sunglasses to spot them moving, grazing and resting in the water.
  • Keep a lookout for the circular "footprints" or ripples they leave on the surface of the water.
  • Follow manatee viewing guidelines and always observe manatees from a respectful distance.
  • Don’t feed or water manatees. Doing so is illegal and can put manatees at risk.
  • Report injured, entangled, orphaned or dead manatees to the FWC’s Wildlife Alert Hotline: 888-404-FWCC (3922), #FWC on your cellphone or text Tip@MyFWC.com.
  • Purchase a manatee decal or license plate and let your friends know how you’re helping support the FWC’s manatee conservation efforts.
  • Contribute to the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida’s Marine Mammal Fund by visiting WildlifeFlorida.org and clicking on "Support Us," "Funding Priorities" and "Marine Mammal Fund."

LINK: For more information on FWC's efforts to protect manatees and how you can help, visit FWC's website.