Florida wildlife officials prepare to help manatees after record deaths

Tallahassee Florida. After a record number of manatee deaths mostly linked to malnutrition, state and federal wildlife officials hope to double rescue and rehabilitation capabilities before dugongs congregate again in warm waters over the winter.

On a conference call Wednesday with reporters, officials from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said they are continuing to build infrastructure and equipment in anticipation of an increased response when manatees return in winter to areas depleted of seagrass.

Terry Calson, a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, said meetings have long been underway with people involved in rehabilitation about the need to accommodate larger numbers of sick manatees “in the coming years.”

Watch out for the manatees

Callison said 89 sheep are being treated at facilities across the state, from starvation cases to boat collision injuries. If necessary, resources are available to handle nearly 100.

Related: US approves critical habitat update for Florida manatees | Florida wildlife officials say some manatee food is growing

“I’d really like to see … almost twice that if we could muster that,” Calson said.

“A lot of that depends on how severe (the condition) the animals are,” Calson said. “One critical animal that needs around-the-clock care can bond one whole group until that animal reaches a point where it is stable.”

Agencies are warning people not to look for manatees while on boats during upcoming holidays.

Over the past winter the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Committee and the Fish and Wildlife Service conducted a very unusual supplemental feeding effort that provided lettuce to manatees, which starved of poor water quality and algal blooms resulting in a depletion of seaweed in key forage areas.

Wildlife officials predict they may once again have to supply lettuce to manatees congregating in East Coast waters next winter. As of June 3, 575 manatee deaths have been reported this year.

FILE – A manatee floats in the warm waters of the Florida Energy and Light Discharge Channel, on Monday, Jan. 31, 2022, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Boston Celtics co-owner Rob Hill is donating $2 million to protect Florida’s manatees and their habitat after two seasons of manatee mortality in the state. The Fox Rock Foundation, a family charity that Hill and his wife, Karen oversee, will give $1 million each to the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida and Save the Manatee Club, the groups announced Tuesday, May 17 (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky), a file) (Copyright 2022, The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

That number dropped from 780 deaths at the same point in 2021, when 1,110 manatees deaths were reported. But it is still much higher than in other years.

“The animals that have made it so far, two winters of low food resources, will continue to be stressed,” said Tom Reinert, Southern District Manager for the Fish and Wildlife Service. “I expect a mortality rate still higher than normal next winter.”

State and federal agencies are working with seven organizations to expand rehabilitation capacity.

Calleson said SeaWorld is expanding to provide up to 20 additional locations, while additional work is underway at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Zoo Tampa and Jacksonville Zoo. Even Walt Disney World offers “on ways in which they can play a more integrated role”.

“All of these people have come in and want to help our efforts and help the manatees in general,” Calson said. “That’s really what it takes. When you’re dealing with 10,000 pound animals, it really takes a village to try to handle, care for, and treat these animals.”

The new state budget, which will take effect on July 1, includes $30 million to strengthen the network of manatee acute care facilities, restore manatee habitat and fund pilot projects similar to the supplemental feeding program.

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