November is Manatee Awareness Month. Manatees (Trichechus) are large, sea-living mammals that can grow up to 13 feet long and weigh up to 1,300 pounds. Manatees spend a lot of their time eating, grazing the ocean floor for massive amounts of sea grass, algae and seaweed. They’re slow movers and are sometimes called sea cows.
There are several species of manatees. The West Indian manatee is common in coastal waters and rivers from Florida to Brazil. They’re federally listed as a threatened species.
Hurricane Ian has contributed to the blooming of toxic algae, so called “Red Tide.” The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission recently reported that the algae Karenia brevis has been found along Florida’s west coast in samples taken from Lee to Sarasota counties.
THREATENED BY STARVATION
It is suspected that the toxic blooming algae can kill the seaweeds and other ocean vegetation that make up the manatees’ essential diet. As reported by Axios, over 1,000 manatees died last year in Florida waters. This year, 700 manatee deaths have been reported so far. After examining dead manatees, scientists believe that their lives are cut short due to starvation.
Fortunately, there are several initiatives aimed at helping Florida’s manatee population – currently estimated at around 7,500 – both public and private. Last year, the Florida Legislature approved $8 million dollars for seagrass restoration projects. And earlier this year, citizens came together to purchase 55 tons of lettuce and feed it to manatees that like to hang out in the warm waters outside a power plant on Florida’s east coast.
HISTORIC PUBLIC EFFORT
The seabed environment is not only impacted by algae, but also by various forms of pollution. In May, Governor DeSantis announced $30 million in conservation and restoration funding included in the 2022–2023 budget to help the manatees thrive in their natural habitats.
These funds will support efforts to enhance and expand the network of manatee acute care facilities, restore access to springs, provide habitat restoration in manatee concentrated areas, expand manatee rescue and recovery efforts, and create pilot projects like supplemental feeding trials. It also includes the expansion of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s manatee mortality and response efforts, including 12 new positions, plus a budget for aerial surveys.
“This historic funding will support important restoration efforts across the state to benefit our manatees and Florida’s natural environment,” the governor said in a statement. “My administration will continue working to find new and innovative ways to support our native species, like the manatee, so that the generations to come can experience Florida’s natural resources.”
If you should encounter a distressed manatee, please call the FWC’s hotline at 888-404-3922.