Wildlife officials to stop manatee temporary feeding program as warm weather moves in

Warmer weather has Florida’s manatees on the move, so the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will stop its temporary feeding program Friday.

The state gave manatees lettuce over the last three months to get them through the winter after a record 565 deaths in 2021. Manatee experts said they are starving from seagrass dying off, particularly along the east coast. So FWC, worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to set up a pilot program on the east coast to feed the manatees through the winter.

"When we had our coldest weather this winter, we had counts upwards of 800 animals at the supplemental feeding site," said Ron Mezich with FWC’s Joint Unified Command Provisioning Branch.

In warmer months, FWC said manatees move from their warm-water refuges into areas with more ample food sources, so feeding is not critical during this time. FWC said Wednesday during an online press conference they don’t know yet how much the extra food helped.

READ: Manatee Appreciation Day brings awareness to Floridians following record number of sea cow deaths

"It’s really difficult to track individual animals, especially when you have hundreds of animals at the site. We do not know daily who attends and who doesn’t for the most part except for a few animals that are easily identified," said Mezich.

FWC said Thursday they believe the joint operation had several successes with the program but didn’t go into more detail, saying more specifics will be shared in a press conference update on April 7 at 10 a.m.

Workers dropped over 201,000 pounds or 100-plus tons of mixed produce in the water since January 20 when the manatees began feeding. FWC said it cost $105,504.15 for the produce from December 15, 2021, through March 15, 2022, adding that $264 of that total was paid with Incident Command System funds and the remainder through donations to the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida. 

"They do have to eat 10 to 15% of their body weight a day, which for a grown adult can be over 100 pounds," said Lisa Smith, an animal care supervisor at ZooTampa, who helps injured and orphaned manatees at the zoo’s manatee rehabilitation center.

RELATED: After 4 months and 160,000 pounds of lettuce, Florida plans to wind down manatee feeding program

ZooTampa sent people over to the east coast help with feeding and caring for the manatees.

"We have been able to send some team members to help over on the east coast with some transports, but fortunately our area over here hasn’t seen a lot of effects," said Smith. "It sounds like from working with Fish and Wildlife like it was an absolutely devastating years for manatees. It’s really hard to hear that they are finding so many deaths, especially so many deaths in one day."

An FWC spokesperson said the joint operation’s winter feeding program are starting to scale operations down to a spring and summer response mode. While the feeding program stops after this week, FWC and manatee caretakers said their work to reverse the trend across the state does not end.

"They weren’t surviving the way they should be, so it’s really an important step to keep the population alive while we think of a long term plan for them," said Smith.

Now, FWC experts will see how the trial worked and what lessons they learned. FWC said they will regroup after two weeks and see how they want to move forward with the feeding program for next winter. 

So far this year, 465 manatees have died in Florida, according to FWC numbers.