More than seventy-nine manatees are currently receiving care in rehabilitation centers located across the US, including Florida, Texas, Ohio and Puerto Rico. The critical need for rehab centers has been caused by a chronic starvation problem due to water pollution that led to a record 1,100 manatee deaths in 2021.
To help combat this issue, authorities have started an experimental lettuce feeding program at an FPL power plant in Port St. John where large numbers of manatees usually gather during winter months.
Teresa Calleson from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said during an online news conference that most of the 79 manatees are being treated at SeaWorld Orlando and zoos in Tampa and Jacksonville with plans to add space for 20 more as cooler weather drives them towards warmer waters for food sources.
She added that about 20 young rehabilitated manatees will be released back into their natural habitats by the end of February 2022 while another 20 died while receiving treatment last year.
Andy Garrett from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission stated there is cautious optimism as they continue their lettuce feeding program which has so far distributed 35,000 pounds of mostly donated romaine/butterleaf lettuce but animal count at Cape Canaveral only reached 75 recently despite it having potential to reach thousands per season last year when 202,000 pounds was fed to them daily.
He also commented that he believes there is not nearly enough volume compared to 2020/2021 but could not comment further on why this might be happening yet.
The greater goal behind these efforts is reducing pollution from agricultural sources such as urban sewage which has caused seagrass beds – essential food source for Manatees – drop by 75% since 2009 according to one water management district in Indian River Lagoon area alone.
There are estimated 7-8 thousand Manatee population left in Florida; close relatives of Elephants who can live up 65 years old but reproduce slowly making it difficult replenish numbers lost over time due to human interference with their environment