Without change, we may have to feed the manatees forever

Normally it’s against the law to feed manatees. Now it might be the only way to keep them alive.

In early December the “unusual mortality event” which killed a record 1,038 manatees in Florida this year prompted federal officials to authorize the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission to feed the animals by hand, offering romaine lettuce to manatees showing signs of starvation.

The feedings will take place near the Florida Power & Light Plant on the Indian River Lagoon in Cape Canaveral, where manatees congregate in winter due to warm-water plant discharges.

But questions abound. What’s the exit strategy here? If this “succeeds,” how or at what point will be it possible for wildlife officials to STOP feeding the manatees, if they become dependent upon handouts?

After all, the underlying conditions which caused this “unusual mortality event” haven’t been fixed, and won’t be for years — if ever.

Manatees are dying specifically because worsening water quality and algae blooms have triggered a mass die-off of seagrass, which the animals rely on for food and habitat.

The Indian River Lagoon, where more than one-third of the manatee deaths have occurred this year, has lost 58% of its seagrass coverage since 2009, or more than 46,000 acres. In some areas, more than 90% of the seagrass is gone.

The culprit: Farm runoff, sewage spills, leaky septic systems and muck full of nutrients. The state is spending millions on infrastructure upgrades and other water-quality projects, but, “a 50% reduction in annual nitrogen and phosphorus loads will still be needed to create water-quality conditions sufficient enough to mitigate harmful algal blooms and result in water clear enough to initiate recovery of seagrasses” said environmental scientist Dr. Peter Barile.

Fifty percent? Better break out more of that romaine.

At VoteWater we believe Florida’s water problems are ultimately political problems. Where our dying manatees are concerned, those problems aren’t easily solved.

Certainly, manatees should again be placed on the federal endangered species list. Communities along the Indian River Lagoon and other waterways where manatees are dying for lack of seagrass must implement or strengthen fertilizer bans.

Other choices will be tougher. Fixing outdated and overburdened sewage treatment plants will cost far more than has yet been allocated. Polluters upstream must be identified and made to change their ways.

But perhaps most importantly, we need better leaders, willing to make tough choices and push for tougher enforcement.

Your support for VoteWater will help us identify those candidates, and help Floridians make informed choices at the ballot box.

For as Florida Fish and Wildlife Institute Research Director Gil McRae said of this crisis Dec. 15, “The eyes of the world are upon us.” And unless we see real change, and soon — it’ll be nothing but dead manatees as far as those eyes can see.