Florida is fighting to feed starving manatees this winter

Few vignettes show How much human activity has affected wildlife more than the spectacle at Florida Power & Light’s plant in Cape Canaveral. Hundreds of manatees bask in a water intake canal at its southeastern edge, drawn by warm currents. The manatees are hungry. Pollution has devastated their usual seagrass menu in the Indus Lagoon. More people starved to death: 1,101 people died in Florida in 2021 and as of December 2022 official estimate nearly 800 people died. So along the canal, members of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are throw them lettuce.

“It’s just symbolic of how dire the situation is,” said Rachel Silverstein, executive director of environmental nonprofit Miami Waterkeeper. “The fact that we need to feed wild animals artificially because their ecosystems are so destroyed that they can’t find food on their own is pretty extreme.”

Complementary feeding program starts in early 2022 and restart this winter, for the persistence of what marine mammal experts call “unusual death event.” “That could keep manatees alive, but it’s not a sustainable condition for manatees to need to rely on artificial feeds for long,” said Silverstein of the feeding program.

A lasting remedial solution will require a long, partial environmental restoration process underway—but it’s a big task, one that has pitted local environmental advocates with state and federal policymakers. And it’s a complicated matter, thanks to the peculiarities of the Florida coast and of the manatees beloved by human inhabitants.

Like most Floridians, manatees are very picky about water temperatures. It’s simply because they don’t have much body fat. Aarin-Conrad Allen, marine biologist and doctoral candidate at Florida International University, said: “People think it’s a large marine mammal so it has a lot of fat, like whale, dolphin, seal or sea lion. Since they are not well insulated, when the water drops below about 68 degrees F, they will migrate to warmer areas. “That’s why they come to these power plants,” he says, and that’s what draws so many people to the Indus River Lagoon, which stretches about 160 miles along Florida’s space coast.

But in the past 50 years, the population of Brevard County, where the Indus is located, has nearly tripled. Human activity also increases agricultural production in the area, leading to more boating accidents that injure manatees (96 percent of them have at least one propeller scar), drying Florida’s historic Everglades, and flooded its waterways with contaminants. Because Florida sits on porous rock (“basically Swiss rock cheese,” says Silverstein), water and pollutants easily migrate into groundwater. “Everything that is happening on the surface is also happening underground,” she said.

That means agricultural discharges and sewage leaks have increased levels of nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen in nearby waters. This additional fertilizer promotes microalgae blooms, blocking sunlight from reaching the seagrasses. Dead seagrasses can fertilize further flowers. This polluted cascade has destabilized Florida’s ecosystem for plants and herbivores; Scientists estimate that about 95 percent Dead seagrasses in parts of the Indus Lagoon. Without them, manatees also die.


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