Florida wildlife officials want millions in funds to help prevent manatee deaths
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is asking lawmakers for money to fund initiatives to help manatees.
With 968 manatee deaths so far this year, Florida has nearly doubled its five-year average.
Last legislative session, lawmakers appropriated about $8 million to help restore manatee habitats. Now, the state's fish and wildlife conservation commission (FWC) is asking lawmakers for more money to help the creatures.
Gil McRae directs FWC's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. He appeared before the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee to give a presentation on what he called the manatee mortality event. McRae told lawmakers that when waters dip below 65 degrees, manatees can die, so the mammals try to find warm water spots. But, once there, McRae said manatees can't venture far.
"So there's an interaction here in that this mortality event occurred in the winter, where manatees were aggregated at this warm water site and couldn't find food," McRae said.
McRae said nutrient pollution in some of these warm-water spots has caused algal blooms to block out light and kill off seagrass. He said most of the manatee deaths this year were from starvation.
"In past years, we lost seagrass, but we've had macro-algae—seaweed—available for manatees to eat. The current situation is we don't have a large acreage of either right now," McRae said.
McRae said once seagrass is gone, it takes a while to come back. His agency is asking the state legislature for $3 million to restore and enhance lakes, rivers, springs, and other manatee habitats. The FWC is also asking for nearly $3 million to expand the Manatee Critical Care Network. McRae said it would add three new facilities that would take care of injured or distressed manatees.
"That combination of funding and adding these new facilities will create space for an additional 50 to 70 manatees," McRae said.
The state partners with facilities like aquariums and zoos to rescue manatees. McRae said there are currently four facilities permitted to rehab the creatures.
"These facilities are critically important because FWC is pretty good at rescuing manatees in distress, but we need somewhere to take them," McRae said.
McRae said if manatees can make it to the facilities, there's a good chance they can be rehabbed and released into the wild. But he told lawmakers baby manatees called calves present a challenge.
"When we take a rescued calf to one of these facilities, it's a two-year commitment for that facility as they begin by bottle feeding that calf, ultimately, weaning it onto food," McRae said.
McRae said the current manatee rescue program is in major need of funding to help baby manatees. He said the nearly $3 million would help fund pools where workers can take care of calves. In addition, his agency has other budget requests, which equal more than $800,000. McRae said that money would go toward program enhancements.
"To do that contingency planning. Do those aerial surveys that are going to inform where manatees are moving and what sort of mortality events we might be looking at. And also for my folks at the institute, increase capacities to rescue manatees and get them to these facilities that I mentioned that were so important," McRae said.
The FWC's most recent estimate shows 8,800 manatees live in Florida. According to that count, 11% of the population has died off in just one year.
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