More than 80 Florida manatees are currently in rehab centers across the US as officials and conservations work to rescue a population that has been hit hard by starvation.
The data, released by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and US Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday, underscores the peril facing the manatees, and comes amid a major conservation effort that includes a feeding program distributing 3,000lb of lettuce daily at a site by the Florida coast.
Manatees are facing an uncertain future. Their preferred food, seagrass, has been depleted because of water pollution; since 2009, about 46,000 acres of natural seagrass has been destroyed.
Last year saw a record 1,100 Florida manatee deaths , far exceeding the annual average and topping the previous record in 2013 of 830 deaths. The first two months of 2022 alone have already seen more than 300 deaths, and conservation groups have sued the federal government over the die off.
Now, a massive feeding effort is underway to address this issue. In December, state environmental groups announced a feeding site at the Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest electric utility, putting up $700,000 for a “temporary field response station” to feed the manatees at its plant in Cape Canaveral on the east coast.
That program has so far distributed about 63,000lb of donated lettuce to as many as 800 manatees at a time, according to the Associated Press.
“The eyes of the world are on this,” said wildlife commission chair Rodney Barreto ahead of the project’s launch. “We’ve got to get it right.”
The state government has funded $1.2m for treatment of the 82 starving manatees currently in rehab, and there are other organizations such as SeaWorld rescue program that are assisting with additional funds, according to the Independent.
However, the measures are merely a “Band-Aid” to the bigger issue, Earthjustice, an environmental law organization said in December.
Others have said that stopping seagrass depletion is fundamental to solving the problem. Florida state representative Randy Fine recently called out new legislation introduced by Tallahassee politicians that favors real estate developers over the starving manatee population, giving developers the option to pay and dredge up natural seagrass.
Elizabeth Forsyth, an Earthjustice attorney, has called on the United States Environmental Protection Agency to urgently address the manatee die off before its too late.
“If watching manatees starve isn’t the tipping point for the EPA to step in, I don’t know what is,” Forsyth said in a December statement.
The Associated Press contributed reporting