ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Manatee deaths dropped in 2022 from a record high the year before, but Florida wildlife officials said Wednesday that chronic starvation caused by water pollution remains a major concern.
Preliminary statistics show 800 recorded manatee deaths last year in Florida, according to the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. That compares with more than 1,100 in 2021. Both numbers are higher than the average annual deaths of the marine mammals.
The new numbers come as state and federal officials are feeding thousands of pounds of romaine lettuce to manatees at a warm-water power plant on Florida's east coast in an effort to slow manatee starvation deaths. More than 200,000 pounds (90,700 kilograms) of lettuce were fed to the threatened animals in the initial trial program last year.
FWC manatee biologist Michelle Pasawicz said the feeding program certainly helped some individual manatees, but the decline in deaths may also be attributed to the weaker, sickest animals perishing in the earlier months of the die-off.
"The manatees do appear to generally be in better shape overall," Pasawicz said during an online news conference. "I think we were helping some manatees for sure. A milder winter definitely gives the manatees a better chance."
So far about 30,000 pounds (13,600 kilograms) of lettuce paid for through donations has been fed to manatees at the site on the Indian River Lagoon, near Cape Canaveral. Another 25,000 pounds (11,300 kilograms) is on its way, Pasawicz said, as more manatees show up.
"This is a marathon. It's going to last us for several months," said Jon Wallace of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The long-term key to manatee survival is restoration of beds of seagrass on which they depend, officials say. Seagrass in the Indian River Lagoon that stretches for miles along the east coast has been decimated by water pollution from agriculture, septic tanks, urban runoff and other sources.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, announced Tuesday that $100 million annually of his proposed $3.5 billion in environmental funding would be used "for priority projects to improve water quality" in the lagoon, including reduction of harmful nutrients and more seagrass plantings. Money would also be set aside to continue task forces on harmful blue-green algae blooms and red tide outbreaks triggered by water pollution.
That money must be appropriated by the Legislature. Wildlife officials had few details Wednesday as it relates to manatees but welcomed any boost in funding.
"We're looking forward to it," said FWC manatee program spokesperson Tom Reinert. "I'd like to think that our feeding program at least helped some manatees."
There are between 7,000 and 8,000 manatees — also known as sea cows — in Florida, according to state estimates. They are close relatives of elephants and can live up to 65 years, but they reproduce slowly.