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Manatee Feeding Program Winding Down as Temperatures Warm

Photo courtesy FWC

Federal and state conservation officers who’ve been feeding hungry manatees this past winter are now planning on winding down the program as temperatures begin to warm. The temporary feeding program began in December, providing roughly 3,000 pounds of produce to manatees every day, paid for almost entirely by donations from the public.

It’s been a joint operation carried out by U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. As of March 16 about 128 thousand pounds of mostly lettuce, had been fed to manatees at the temporary feeding station in the warm waters of a power station outflow in Cocoa.

“On March 7th the warm water refuge was shut off by the power plant," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife officer Brian Spears. He is the Co-Commander of the Joint Unified Command. He said it was an appropriate step to take given the warming weather. "Hopefully we’ve gotten through our last cold snap," said Spears. "We are definitely seeing manatees do their thing in terms of dispersing, we are getting fewer animals at the provisioning sites, fewer rescues, and our carcass recovery trends are certainly reducing as well.”

As a result of the warming temperatures plans are underway now to wean the manatees off the feeding program within the next few weeks.

Photo Courtesy Georgia Aquarium
About 83 manatees are being rehabilitated and cared for in aquariums around the country

“At some point here in the near future we will stop feeding operations," said Florida Fish and Wildlife Officer Ron Mezich. He is the Provision Chief for the Joint Command. "Once we stop we have no intention of starting again for this spring. That’s because we don’t want to condition the animals to have an expectation that whenever it gets cold, they’ll be food here. That’s not something we want to imprint on them.”

There have been 400 confirmed manatee deaths in Florida as of March 4th, 30 less than at the same time last year according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The rate has slowed, but the death rate is still high, and the Indian River Lagoon remains short of the sea grass the manatees need to survive.

“We’re not going to resolve the sea grass issues over the course of this summer," said Tom Reinert, FWC Joint Unified Command spokesman. The feeding program may have to be re-started next winter, he said. "We’ll see, but it feels likely that we may have to do this again."

If you see a manatee that you think is in need of rescue call the Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-3922.