ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — More than six dozen threatened manatees are currently in rehabilitation centers in Florida and elsewhere amid a chronic starvation problem caused by water pollution, wildlife officials said Wednesday.
Most of the 79 manatees are being treated at three places: SeaWorld in Orlando, and zoos in Tampa and Jacksonville, Teresa Calleson, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said during an online news conference.
Soon, she said, SeaWorld will add space for an additional 20 of the marine mammals to receive care as cooler weather and lower ocean temperatures drive them to warmer waters to forage for dwindling food.
"We are now firmly into winter," Calleson said. "I'm pretty optimistic about where we are now in terms of critical care space."
About 20 young manatees that have been rehabilitated will be released in the wild by the end of February, she added. In 2022, 20 more manatees died while in rehab.
The rehab centers, including others in Texas, Ohio and Puerto Rico, are needed for manatees suffering through a widespread starvation event as pollution chokes off the seagrass they need to survive cold months.
The problem reached a peak in 2021 with a record 1,100 manatee deaths. In 2022, officials said 783 manatee deaths have been confirmed through Dec. 23 from all causes, including boat strikes.
That's led to cautious optimism as authorities continue an experimental lettuce feeding program at a power plant on Florida's east coast, where manatees typically gather in winter.
"I do not feel like it's nearly the volume we were experiencing in 2020 and 2021," Andy Garrett, of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said of the number of dead and seriously ill manatees. "Why that is I am not sure."
Manatees so far have not gathered at the Cape Canaveral feeding site in large numbers. Capt. Thomas Van Trees of the FWC said the highest animal count so far is 75 recently.
About 35,000 pounds of mostly donated romaine and butterleaf lettuce has been delivered to the site, Van Trees said.
"We're fully operational. We're really going full steam ahead," he said.
Last year, about 202,000 pounds of lettuce was fed to manatees that can gather at Cape Canaveral by the thousands during winter.
The greater goal is to reduce pollution from agriculture, urban and sewage sources that has caused a die-off in the seagrass beds manatees depend on for food especially on the east coast. One water management district found that there has been a 75% drop in seagrass in the critical Indian River Lagoon since 2009.
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.