Watch CBS News

Florida's Starving Manatees Dying In Record Numbers Despite Experimental Lettuce Feeding Program

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami) – 2022 is close to turning into another record year for manatee deaths in Florida, as 400 of the gentle sea cows have perished in the first two months of the year, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

The group cites Florida water pollution as the cause which smothers and suffocates seagrasses that feed the already crippled manatee population and spurs toxic algae blooms

Through March 4, 2022, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission recorded 400 manatee deaths, putting the state on a path to a second year of record mortality, after a total of 1,101 manatee deaths were tallied in 2021. Last year's mortality accounted for roughly 15% of the entire manatee population, then estimated at 7,520 animals.

If manatees keep dying at the current rate, then 2022 will more than double last year's record losses.

Manatee Lettuce Feeding Program
Florida manatees eat lettuce that's been distributed by wildlife officials. (Credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

This is happening despite a joint federal-state emergency effort to drop tons of lettuce and other produce to starving manatees. The unprecedented feeding operation began on January 20 for manatees that gather in the warm waters near a power plant on Florida's east coast particularly in the Indian River Lagoon, as they typically do during cold months.

PEER also claims the state has reduced the rate of necropsies, so that precise causes of manatee deaths are harder to pinpoint. The group says 280 manatee carcasses, 70% of the total, were not necropsied, and even higher percentage than in 2021.

"Without necropsies, state officials are flying blind in the middle of a biological storm," stated PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse, noting that major causes of manatee mortality, such as watercraft strikes, are not being tracked. "Not pinpointing the causes makes it that much harder to recognize effective solutions."

Meanwhile, the Florida Legislature has again deadlocked on approaches to help restore depleted seagrasses.

"Florida lacks a coherent strategy for saving the manatee," added Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former enforcement attorney for the state Department of Environmental Protection, pointing to the absence of any plan to protect water quality in manatee habitat. "The shallow waters that harbor manatees are more sensitive to the impacts of pollution and are in desperate need of relief."

More than 80 rescued manatees are currently being cared for at facilities in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico, and Ohio, according to Terri Calleson of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Some of those are abandoned calves that typically take longer to recover.

Florida legislators last year provided $8 million for several seagrass restoration projects that will get off the ground this year, officials said. But it won't be an immediate solution.

"We're not solving the seagrass issue in a year," said Tom Reinert of the Florida wildlife commission.

There are currently about 7,500 manatees, also known as sea cows, living in Florida waters. They are listed federally as a threatened species, although there are efforts to give them the heightened endangered designation.

The approach of warmer weather means manatees will disperse to areas where food is more plentiful, officials said.

"It's warming up, and that's a good thing for manatees. They'll be moving on," Reinert said.

Officials say most distressed manatees in Florida are reported by people who spot them and call a state hotline at 888-404-3922.


View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.