Budget conference: Budget chiefs OK millions to rescue manatees

manatee-cow-and-calf
State officials recorded 1,101 manatee deaths in 2021, an all-time high.

More help is on the way to Florida’s starving manatee population.

Budget writers agreed Tuesday to provide $5.3 million to Florida’s Manatee Rescue and Mortality Response initiative. The funding will float 12 full-time employees and various rescue equipment — two boats, trailers, tow vehicles and a specialized manatee rescue truck.

Manatees, meanwhile, are dying at record pace in Florida, mostly of starvation. Seagrass, the meal of choice for sea cows, is disappearing. Biologists say water pollution is largely to blame.

In response, state officials have begun feeding manatees 20,000 pounds of lettuce a week. The prayer-turned-plan, they say, is working. On average, upward of 350 manatees are flocking daily to the feed site — a Florida Power & Light plant on the east coast.

“We’re making a difference,” said Ron Mezich of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission during an online news conference. “It gives us the greatest exposure to the greatest number of animals.”

State officials recorded 1,101 manatee deaths in 2021, an all-time high. Comparatively, the five-year mortality average is 625.

Sea cows, though, have long been of concern for marine biologists and animal enthusiasts. In recent history, several other unusual mortality events plagued manatees, although those were determined to be caused by red tides, algae blooms, or unusually cold winters.

Lawmakers filed several proposals in the 2022 Legislative Session to address the die-off. They’re also seeking alternative ways to save sea cows, including a plan to fast-track sea grass plantings.

A marine environmental consultant, Palm City Republican Rep. Toby Overdorf said a new permitting plan should allow a number of private seagrass nurseries to get their plants into the ocean floor more quickly. The plan comes after this year’s versions of seagrass mitigation banks bills (HB 349 and SB 198) died.

Manatees are protected under federal law and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, according to a leading manatee protection group. The protections make it illegal to harass, hunt, capture or kill the marine mammal. Violators face fines and imprisonment under state and federal law.

Jason Delgado

Jason Delgado covers news out of the Florida State Capitol. After a go with the U.S. Army, the Orlando-native attended the University of Central Florida and earned a degree in American Policy and National Security. His past bylines include WMFE-NPR and POLITICO Florida. He'd love to hear from you. You can reach Jason by email ([email protected]) or on Twitter at @byJasonDelgado.



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