State lawmakers have filed millions of dollars in appropriations requests in this year’s Legislative Session directed toward helping manatees. And additional help couldn’t come at a better time.
Last year was the deadliest year for manatees in recorded history. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported that more than 1,000 manatees died in 2021 — double the five-year average. Most of those deaths were due to starvation from lost seagrasses.
The manatee-centric appropriations requests — totaling over $6 million — have already cleared the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee and are now headed to Appropriations. The number of appropriation requests for manatee-related projects also appears to be higher this year. Only one similar project was listed last year by the House: a request (HB 3929) seeking $1.5 million for Port Manatee Seagrass Mitigation at Perico. The request died in House Appropriations.
Rep. Chris Latvala filed the largest funding request (HB 2663) related to manatees, seeking $3 million for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s Manatee Rehabilitation Exhibit.
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is nationally recognized for its rehabilitation of the prosthetic-tailed dolphin Winter, who died last November. The aquarium’s work with Winter was showcased in the “Dolphin Tale” movies.
The funding would help renovate the aquarium’s “Winter Zone,” — which showcases the filming area for the movies — into a habitat for manatee rehabilitation.
Through pool renovations, the aquarium hopes to enhance capacity with the Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Partnership (MRP) for the rehabilitation of West Indian manatees. According to the request, funds will help improve and expand existing facilities for medical treatment, rehabilitation and/or necropsies, including build outs, alterations, upgrades and renovations that meet U.S. Department of Agriculture standards for the care of manatees and other marine mammals. The center hopes to add 12 “beds” for manatees to recover before going back out into the wild.
According to the request, the federal government has already guaranteed $94,000 to the project, and $100,000 will come from local sources. However, most of the funding — 68.1% — will be provided by private donors, who have already guaranteed $6.8 million to the exhibit. The state’s contribution, if approved, would account for 30% of the exhibit’s funding. The state money would be distributed by the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).
According to the request, ZooTampa is building a $15 million Manatee Rescue Center that will “offer an unprecedented glimpse at our rescue, rehabilitation and release program.” About 90%, or $13.5 million, will be funded via private donors and the zoo itself.
The first phase of the project features an overlook where zoo visitors can observe manatees at a critical care center and learn from the wildlife professionals who return the injured or orphaned manatees back to Florida waters. The Manatee Overlook will also provide information about the impact of red tide, pollution and boat strikes on the manatee population. More than 1.1 million guests visit the zoo each year, according to the request.
The Bishop Museum of Science and Nature is seeking $547,000 from the state to expand its manatee rehabilitation program, according to an appropriations request (HB 4927) filed by Rep. Will Robinson, a Manatee County Republican.
According to the request, the museum “has been asked by FWC and (the United States Fish and Wildlife Service) to expand its manatee rehabilitation program” because of the current crisis being experienced by Florida manatees.
The money would go to fund more staff, buy more medical equipment, and lease an off-site facility. Specifically, the center hopes to purchase a radiograph machine for veterinary use, which is estimated to cost $50,000. Another $30,000 would go to a temporary calf pool, heater and filtration system. The museum is looking to add two animal care staff members for a year, as well as contract a veterinarian and upgrade life support facilities for two large pools.
The center has been caring for and releasing manatees since 1998, and has specific expertise in caring for young calves, according to the report.
The funds would go to constructing a “multi-purpose facility for live animal presentations and K-12 school field trip programs.”
According to the request, the project is included in the Environmental Management Department’s Capital Investment Plan for Volusia County, with $600,000 already pledged from local government.