What Is There To Do In Florida In The Winter

As Florida’s record manatee die-off nears 1,000 victims so far this year, the state’s top wildlife official asked lawmakers for $7 million more in 2022 to save starving sea cows and suggested that his agency temporarily do what would today get you a $500 fine and/or up-to 60 days in prison: tossing them a few scraps of leafy blades.

“There’s a possibility some level of supplemental feeding might be in order,” Gil McRae, director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Service’s research institute in St. Petersburg, told state lawmakers Wednesday.

“Those of you that have paid attention to feeding wildlife know that almost universally, it does more harm than good,” McRae explained to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee. “But we know this is a very particular situation where manatees are attracted to these warm water sites.”

McRae was referring to the discharge from power plants. More than 1,500 manatees have been known to huddle in wintertime at Florida Power & Light Co.’s plant in Port St. John along the Indian River Lagoon. Those herds can stress nearby seagrass beds — already shrunken from years of algae blooms — beyond the habitat’s capacity to feed so many sea cows.

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An adult manatee eats 100 to 200 pounds of seagrass per day to survive. But up to 90% of the seagrass coverage in much of the sea cow’s most important habitat — the Indian River Lagoon — vanished after severe, successive algae blooms that began a decade ago. The blooms blocked the sunlight their staple seagrass diet needs to photosynthesize.

As seagrass withers statewide, manatees have had little to eat this year, leaving them vulnerable to disease, cold and starvation. SeaWorld in Orlando and other manatee rescues throughout Florida have been overwhelmed with sick sea cows.

Most ill manatees didn’t make it to a rescue.

From Jan. 1 through Oct. 8, at least 968 manatees have died in Florida, including 321 in Brevard County. Biologists don’t know the exact number but believe most died from starvation. This year’s death toll tops the previous Florida record of 830 manatee deaths set in 2013.

FWC five years ago estimated Florida’s manatee population at more than 8,800, McCrae said.

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What would feeding look like?

It would still be illegal for those without state approval to feed manatees. A conviction for violating federal species protection laws is punishable by fines up to $100,000 and/or a year in prison.

But it is rare that the feds or FWC pursue such fines. The state agency confirmed Thursday that there have only been 14 warnings statewide this year for harassing manatees. That can include feeding the federally threatened species. Nobody has been fined this year for such “harassment,” however, and FWC could not clarify Thursday how many of the 14 warnings were for feeding. None of the warnings were in Brevard, where a third of this years manatees have died, FWC spokeswoman Shannon Knowles said via email.

If FWC decides to feed manatees in the wild this winter, there’s no agreement yet on the best approach. But the intent would be to relieve pressure on rescue attempts and rehab centers, said Martine deWit, the veterinarian who runs FWC’s necropsy lab in St. Petersburg.

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But it is rare that the feds or FWC pursue such fines. The state agency confirmed Thursday that there have only been 14 warnings statewide this year for harassing manatees. That can include feeding the federally threatened species. Nobody has been fined this year for such “harassment,” however, and FWC could not clarify Thursday how many of the 14 warnings were for feeding. None of the warnings were in Brevard, where a third of this years manatees have died, FWC spokeswoman Shannon Knowles said via email.

If FWC decides to feed manatees in the wild this winter, there’s no agreement yet on the best approach. But the intent would be to relieve pressure on rescue attempts and rehab centers, said Martine deWit, the veterinarian who runs FWC’s necropsy lab in St. Petersburg.

More research is needed to pin down the current health of the manatee population before wildlife officials go ahead with the decision to feed, said Pat Rose, an aquatic biologist and executive director of Save the Manatee Club.

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“It’s all predicated on the actual body condition of the vast majority of these manatees,” Rose said, adding the decision should be based on science, and not on emotions.

The fact both state and federal officials are even considering the decision to feed manatees, though, highlights the desperate all-hands response to try and save more sea cows in the future, Rose said.

“None of us would want to even be considering this as something that may be necessary,” Rose said. “It’s definitely a sign of the times, but we definitely need more health assessments all the way through. I do believe we have to be ready.”

It’s illegal for the public to feed or give water to manatees, because the animals can grow dependent on human sources of food. McRae did not immediately return request for comment on additional details Wednesday.

According to McRae, FWC is seeking in

2022:

  • $3 million for restoring manatee habitat
  • $2.95 million for expanding care network
  • $717,767 for manatee rescue and mortality response
  • $160,000 for manatee management

Pathway to warm springs

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McRae also told legislators Warm Mineral Springs in Sarasota County is a “critical natural warm water site” for manatees. The water in the spring is 85 degrees year-round, originating from a vent 200 feet below the surface.

But sediment pollution veils the creek that flows out of the springs and into to the Myakka River, where over 100 manatees have been recorded. The state is using some of the $8 million allocated for habitat restoration earlier this year to clear the creek, McRae said.

Blue Spring, which flows into the St. Johns River, can hold about 600 manatees in any given winter. But the spring could use some work on stabilizing the bank and other restoration efforts, McRae said.

New rehab sites

The state currently uses four sites to rehabilitate suffering manatees: Jacksonville Zoo, Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park, Miami Seaquarium and SeaWorld in Orlando.

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With more money, the state wants to add three new facilities into the mix, with an emphasis on treating calves: Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Florida Aquarium in Tampa and Bishop Museum of Science and Nature in Bradenton.

The one wildcard in this year’s manatee deaths is red tide algae blooms in Southwest Florida. An estimated 40 manatees have died so far this year of red tide.

On Thursday, FWC reported a patchy red tide bloom along Florida’s Gulf coast. Tests found red tide in 116 samples over the past week, with bloom concentrations were in Franklin, Levy, Pinellas, Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties.

“A significant loss,” McRae said of this year’s manatee deaths. “This is something we’re going to be monitoring very carefully in subsequent years.”

Source : https://www.clickorlando.com/news/local/2021/10/19/florida-mulls-the-once-unthinkable-feeding-starving-manatees-in-the-wild/

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