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Wildlife Authorities Fear More Manatee Deaths, Describe Urgent Rescue Efforts

David Hinkle

Gil McRae of the FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute says the die-off is unusual in that it’s tied to starvation.

State and federal wildlife authorities are characterizing a die-off of Florida manatees as unprecedented.

They described urgent efforts to brace for more deaths before a meeting Wednesday of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. 

A record 890 manatees are dead since January. The problem is especially acute in the Indian River Lagoon, where water quality problems have led to widespread seagrass losses. 

Gil McRae of the FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute says the die-off is unusual in that it’s tied to starvation. He says wildlife authorities are considering supplemental feedings. 

“Supplemental feeding of wildlife often does more harm than good. And supplemental feeding of a manatee, an animal that eats hundreds of pounds of vegetation in a day, logically there are some challenges.” 

McRae says they’re also looking into efforts to restore lost seagrasses. The manatee’s population in the state is estimated at 8,800. The animal was downlisted in 2017 from endangered to threatened. 

“A couple of things that are, you know, scary things to say, but you know the long-term solution of habitat restoration, that's seagrass restoration, doesn't happen overnight,” said Commissioner Mike Sole, a former secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. “So, I call it a five- to 10-year process. … We really can't start planting grasses until water quality is reasonably squared away in certain parts.”

Kate MacFall, state director of The Humane Society of the United States, said the commission could use the manatee situation as an opportunity to improve state waters.

“We urge you to work with the (Department of Environmental Protection), the water management districts, the legislators — I know you already do, but even more — and others to find ways to improve the quality of water, of what is discharged into our waterways,” MacFall said. “You have a loud voice, and this agency carries a lot of weight and a lot of authority and people listen.”

Information from News Service of Florida was used in this report.

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Amy Green