Trying Everything, Even Lettuce, to Save Florida’s Beloved Manatees

INDIAN RIVER LAGOON, Fla. — At first, manatees steered clear of romaine lettuce.

It was an extraordinary experience in difficult times: humans dumping pallets of leafy greens to feed Florida’s beloved manatees in the warm waters of the Indian River Lagoon, where decades of pollution have destroyed their delicate diet of seagrass.

Eventually, a pair of daring manatees approached. With their prehensile lips – they are distantly related to elephants – they grabbed the lettuce and nibbled on it. No longer followed. On the coldest days, hundreds came, and during the three-month feeding period, the hungry mammals ate every morsel of the 202,000 pounds of lettuce tossed from above.

Floridians treasure manatees, round, gentle giants that have long captured the human imagination, but people have failed to care for the animals’ environment, putting the species’ survival at risk. Now, with manatees disappearing in large numbers, humans are trying crisis rescue measures in desperate attempts to keep them alive.

It may not be enough. The iconic manatee remains struggling, and with it, a piece of Florida’s identity.

For more than a century, the state has had a contradictory relationship with nature. Florida’s way of life is synonymous with outdoor activities, but also sprawling development that has damaged the natural plumbing of Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades, threatened drinking water supplies and left the state severely vulnerable. to climate change.

The manatees had been something of a success story, their status going from threatened to endangered in 2017 after years of educating boaters to avoid deadly strikes. The famine once again put them in danger.

Along Florida’s Atlantic coast, mortality began last year, after the Indian River Lagoon, a 156-mile estuary that had been a seasonal refuge for manatees, turned into an undersea desert. arid sea. Decades of waste from leaky septic tanks and fertilizer runoff from farms and development have fueled algal blooms that blocked sunlight and smothered the seagrass the manatees used to eat .

The feeding experiment, designed and executed by federal and state wildlife officials and fueled by $116,000 in public donations, was a gamble. Between January 1 and April 1, the number of confirmed deaths fell to 479, from 612 in 2021. In 2020, that figure was 205.

In the past year, 1,100 Florida manatees have died, a record. About 7,500 are thought to have remained in the wild.

The drop in confirmed deaths does not necessarily mean that the famine has eased and food has helped. Scientists will spend the summer reviewing environmental conditions, autopsy results and other data to make a more comprehensive assessment, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission veterinarian Dr. Martine de Wit said in her lab. of pathobiology of marine mammals in St. Petersburg.

“It probably has to do with a later start to winter,” she said of the lower preliminary death toll. “And then we had a relatively short winter. This may have helped some manatees.

Floridians share a special affection for manatees. Threatened with extinction, manatees are “adopted” by people who make charitable donations to support their protection. “Save the Manatee” is one of the most popular specialty license plates in the state. Homes display manatee mailboxes.

Small towns like Orange City, home to Blue Spring State Park, hold manatee festivals that draw tourists to places that don’t otherwise get many visitors. Perhaps the most famous is Crystal River on Florida’s Gulf Coast, where people can swim with manatees.

But neither passion nor economic interest has stopped humans from posing a deadly threat – first from boat strikes, which have long caused manatee deaths, and now from pollution, which has destroyed much of their food supply.

Everyone agrees on the ideal long-term solution: restoring the lagoon habitat through a variety of efforts, from cultivating and planting new seagrass beds to improving stormwater drainage to by moving properties from septic tanks to sewage systems. But all of these projects are expensive and will take years. For critics, the feeding program was woefully inadequate – too late and far too limited, both in the amount and type of food provided to the animals.

The outlook isn’t uniformly bleak. Some lucky manatees wintered 70 miles northeast of Indian River Lagoon. The animals had swum to the jewel-toned blue spring halfway between Orlando and Daytona Beach, where they could escape the cold water and be close to the abundant foliage of the St. Johns River.

In January, during the annual Orange City Manatee Festival, food trucks sold soft-shell crab and alligator sausages. Artisans sold manatee-themed wall clocks and soap dishes. Linda Young from Casselberry wore a manatee beanie to keep warm. “MANATEES ARE AWESOME,” said his T-shirt.

“Everyone in my life, they know me as the manatee girl,” Ms Young, 45, said.

The next day in Blue Spring, Wayne Hartley, a jovial 78-year-old manatee specialist from the Save the Manatee Club, set about counting the animals, as he has done since 1980. In his early days, 36 manatees wintered at the spring. This year’s season high was 871, a record – and a testament to how some preservation efforts have worked.

Mr. Hartley also hopes something else is happening: Perhaps the manatees that would normally seek refuge in the Indian River Lagoon are trying to adapt to the loss of seagrass by traveling elsewhere.

“They go back to the East Coast and they’re like, ‘This place sucks – I’m going back to Blue Spring,'” he said.

Clutching a small notebook, he paddled his canoe along the crystal clear waters of the spring. Each time he saw a manatee, he marked his presence with a black marker. He often greeted sea cows by name.

“Monic!”

“Phylis. »

“Oh, that’s precious. Big female. Blue Spring 140,” he said, identifying it by its official number, which he knew from memory.

A few manatees frolicked around his canoe, circling in a kind of dance. He keeps a notebook for each winter of census registration. He went through a phase of being nominated for Harry Potter (“Weasley”) and, as a history major, one for English Kings (“Egbert”).

At a glance as he paddled, he identified the manatees by the unique scars on their backs and tails left by the blows of boat propellers.

“It’s Alice,” he said. “One of those where you wonder why she’s alive. Those scars on his side? These are huge and so brutal.

Park regulars visit on cold, foggy days, knowing that’s when most manatees seek the warmth of spring. Even on a Monday morning, a long line of cars snaked down the street to enter the park.

“Have you seen Annie or Moo Shoo? a woman asked Mr. Hartley from one of the observation decks inside. (No, but he had seen Lucille.)

“Floyd and Lenny? a man wanted to know. (Just Whiskers and Nick.)

In the Indian River Lagoon, the turbid brown waters are much less hospitable. The barren lagoon floor, now comprised of little more than sand and horseshoe crabs, is a sobering sight.

“I remember when the water was crystal clear and you could see seagrass pastures,” said Katrina Shadix, an environmental activist who fished in the lagoon decades ago. “It was once the most amazing and beautiful estuary. The ecosystem has collapsed.

Ms. Shadix and Wanda Jones, a marine biologist, frequently rented a pontoon boat during the winter to search the far reaches of the lagoon for manatees in distress to report to the state rescue hotline. The rehabilitation facilities were in such demand this year that they sent manatees as far away as Ohio for treatment. Volunteers tasked with saving the boats and lifting the huge animals using trailers came from as far away as Alaska.

Ms Shadix and Dr Jones have urged state wildlife officials to take more drastic measures to save manatees, including trucking in hydrillas and water hyacinths, invasive aquatic plants that grow in excess along many Florida waterways and greatly expanding feeding efforts. (Federal law prohibits unauthorized persons from feeding manatees and other wild marine mammals.)

Officials counter that would be logistically too difficult – the limited feeding trial was already a big undertaking – and could introduce unwanted new organisms into the lagoon.

On one of their trips in early March, Dr Jones steered the boat to a secluded cove on Merritt Island. “It’s the manatee graveyard,” Ms. Shadix said.

Manatee carcasses had rotted there, dumped by authorities in 2021 as deaths became overwhelming. The air still smelled putrid. Bones – ribs, vertebrae, a few teeth – clumped with green algae remained visible through the shallow water.

This year, most of the carcasses went to landfills.

For Mr. Hartley at Blue Spring, the toughest days are when state wildlife officials call about a dead manatee and ask him to identify it. This year, it happened once, in February. He identified the female as Tirma, Blue Spring 775. He hadn’t seen her since 2014.

In 2020, he recalls, he went to a marina where a man with a tractor transported a carcass. Mr. Hartley recognized it right away. Amber. Anne’s daughter. Pregnant. Cause of death unknown.

“Amber was twin with Amanda, and Amber was abandoned,” he said. “So there was a long story.”

He cried after identifying her. Her voice stopped again as she spoke of that day.

“Maybe it was just too many times,” he said, “to come out and see them dead like that.”