A plan that began decades ago to do something about Florida’s starving manatees appears to be moving forward.
The waters around the Everglades are in the midst of the nation’s third-worst manatee die-off ever, a near epidemic that has concerned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and local environmentalists for nearly a decade. Over the last four years alone, 4,888 of the endangered creatures have died in shallow waters, and they have been found malnourished and lying on the ground.
The manatee population is estimated to be 6,600 in Florida’s swamps, lakes and oceans. About 60 to 100 die each year.
For the first time, the agency is reportedly moving ahead with a plan that would employ a practice called “test feeding,” in which manatees feed themselves, likely in swarms. The manatees use their long snouts to help themselves pump up to 3,000 liters of food a day from the water up to the massive bodies of water in the manatees’ mouths, scientists say.
The use of “test feeding” is especially important in the wake of a study released last week that found two things. First, that the dramatic die-off that has alarmed scientists is linked to a specific strain of bacteria resistant to antibiotics.
The second finding was that the dangerous strain has been spreading in the lake where the manatees are found to their “known limit” of what the bacteria can tolerate.
The manatee die-off has primarily been blamed on a pervasive algae bloom that has made the lake a toxic place to swim.
“It’s not that the lake is toxic, but the algae is killing the manatees,” said Dirk Haselow, an Everglades researcher who has been studying water quality and manatee health for 30 years.
And it’s not just the lake: There’s a very real chance that manatees could die in Everglades National Park, he said.
Studies have long shown that the air quality around the lake is unhealthy, and there have been significant changes in the lake’s water since officials turned on the water springs several years ago, said Lawrence Kapish, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manatee biologist overseeing the manatee study.
“What we hope that it is, is that we find that manatees are not going into the lake to help themselves.”
That solution is “test feeding,” he said. The plan would involve individual manatees using their nose to determine how much food they need.
“They’re probably better at that than we are,” Kapish said.
Scientists in Florida and Washington said the trial study could take a long time. It has to be done by research biologists on the ground working alongside the biologists whose work has led to the decline of manatees.
“We’re very concerned about seeing whether there will be an effect on the population,” Kapish said.
It may take as long as two years for the manatees to kill the bacteria and return to their sea state.
The manatee count has remained fairly consistent, according to state and federal figures, despite the manatee die-off. There was a 40 percent drop in their numbers in 2016, but a slight increase in the number of deaths in 2017.
The number of deaths remained more than twice as high as the yearly average during the previous four years, officials said.
State biologists, who said they have not increased their manatee kill count because their data is incomplete, said there is still time for action.
The South Florida Water Management District told its staff on Friday that test feeding “will be added as an effective practice to increase the magnitude of manatee population recovery,” the district’s human resources and environmental services division said in a statement.
According to the statement, the water management district’s fisheries and marine resources staff are helping develop test feeding plans.