FILE - A group of manatees are pictured in a canal where discharge from a nearby Florida Power & Light plant warms the water in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Dec. 28, 2010. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File) Photo by: Lynne Sladky/AP

FL - Florida discontinues manatee winter feeding program after seagrass conditions improve

505 manatee deaths recorded between Jan. 1 and Nov. 24 this year

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — A two-year experimental feeding program for starving Florida manatees will not immediately resume this winter as conditions have improved for the threatened marine mammals and the seagrass on which they depend, wildlife officials said.

Thousands of pounds of lettuce were fed to manatees that typically gather in winter months near the warm-water discharge of a power plant on Florida's east coast. State and federal wildlife officials launched the program after pollution killed off vast seagrass beds, leading to a record of over 1,100 manatee deaths in 2021.

This season, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined the seagrass has started to recover in key winter foraging areas on the east coast, and that there appear to be fewer manatees in poor physical condition going into the stressful colder months.

"After careful consideration, the agencies are not providing manatees with a supplemental food source at the beginning of the winter season," the FWC said Friday in a notice on its website. "However, staff developed a contingency plan which they will implement if needed."

Last year, more than 400,000 pounds of lettuce, most of it donated, was fed to manatees near the power plant in Cocoa, Florida.

Manatees are gentle, round-tailed giants sometimes known as sea cows that weigh as much as 1,200 pounds and can live as long as 65 years. Manatees are Florida’s official state marine mammal but are listed as a threatened species, also facing peril from boat strikes and toxic red tide algae outbreaks along the state’s Gulf coast. Their closest living relative is the elephant.

The starvation problem — something the wildlife agencies call an "unusual mortality event" — has been traced to nitrogen, phosphorus and sewage pollution from agriculture, urban runoff and other sources that trigger algae blooms, which in turn kill off the seagrass that manatees and other sea creatures rely upon.

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