FRONTENAC, Fla. — Scott Calleson took cover behind a camouflage tarp, then tossed a head of Romaine lettuce to a crowd of restless manatees that jockeyed for position to chomp at a leafy free lunch.
Like the others feeding sea cows Friday at Florida Power & Light’s natural gas power plant, Calleson, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, prefers not to be seen, at least not by the sea cows. If manatees glimpse his generosity, they’ll begin to link him and other humans with their meals and stop fending for themselves.
“We don’t want them to associate people with food,” said Tom Reinert, a regional director with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, standing along a dock within the FPL plant’s intake canal.
A record 1,100 manatees starved to death last year from a man-made famine that has choked out the seagrass — the staple of the gentle giants’ diet. Island outcroppings in estuaries up and down Florida have become sea cow mass graveyards as more manatees succumb to the ravages of hunger every day.
The death toll was so bad that in April, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared the die-off an Unusual Mortality Event. In a first-of-its kind pilot project to try to stave off further starvation, state and federal biologists have been feeding manatees at the FPL plant since mid December. They plan to feed the manatees through the end of March.
Using a system designed specifically for this purpose, the power plant has been heating the water in the canal on an emergency basis this winter to prevent as many manatees as possible from dying from the cold.
“We’re trying to feed the animals to keep them out of rehab,” Calleson told reporters Friday during a tour of the manatee feeding area at FPL’s plant. SeaWorld has been the only place in Florida taking in sick and starving manatees recently: “It’s sort of proof of concept.”
Some 800 sea cows huddled at the FPL plant last week, as temperatures dipped into the 30s, and the lagoon dropped down into the 50s. On Friday, about 175 manatees mingled and munched inside the power plant’s steel walled intake area.
“They’re not picky eaters,” Calleson said.
Two decades ago, Calleson was among Florida’s chief architects of a vast array of controversial go-slow manatee zones — the bane of many Brevard boaters — that now hug the shores of most of the 156-mile-long Indian River Lagoon.
But this day there are no boats around. FWC banned them from the area near the power plant for three months to make it safer for sea cows this winter. Two decades of slowing captains down hasn’t saved enough manatees, though, so now Calleson and his colleagues are hand feeding the species they spent careers trying to guard via boating restrictions and other means.
Bright green lettuce floats along cloudy gray waters, with sea cow humps breaking the surface as state and federal biologists pitch more heads of lettuce to appease the hungry manatee mob.
One manatee uses another as a table of sorts, sliding its snout over the other manatee’s back to munch down the lettuce. Tails and flippers flap and fly in occasional rapid frenzies of splashes, likely a spat over the lettuce or maybe just the inevitable marine mammal agitations of a flipper-to-flipper crowd in such a tight space.
State and federal biologists emphasized Friday that the general public shouldn’t try to feed manatees. Instead, Reinert said those who want to help should contribute to the nonprofit Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida, which is fundraising to support FWC’s feeding of manatees in the wild this winter.
When FPL decommissioned its oil-burning Space Race-era plant in 2010 and built a natural gas plant, the company installed an electric heating system solely to keep the sea cows balmy as it built the new plant. The plant draws in lagoon water to prevent equipment from overheating, discharging it back out into the lagoon.
That warm water near both power plants for decades had trained manatees to winter there. State permitting rules dictate that FPL warm the waters near the plant to at least 61 degrees Fahrenheit. Anything below 68 degrees can sicken and kill manatees. This day, it’s about 71 degrees.
The power plant discharges about 620 million gallons of warm water back into the lagoon daily, about 25 percent less than the old plant.
This winter, trailers packed with Romaine lettuce grace the shores of the FPL plant. Sea cows have been eating about 2,500 pounds of lettuce per day. The adults average about 1,000 pounds in weight and eat 100 pounds of lettuce per day. If manatees don’t get enough water from the lettuce, large jugs of freshwater are nearby, which biologists can deliver to the manatees by hose.
Marine mammal biologists say last weekend’s freeze was the last thing one of the state’s most iconic creatures needed, in the wake of its worst year of seagrass famine ever.
It’s too soon to tell how many more might die this week from the recent cold, biologists say. It could take weeks for the ill effects of the frigid water temperatures to set in and kill the most vulnerable among the sea cows.
At least 97 manatees have died so far this year, through Jan. 28, including 64 in Brevard. By comparison, the five-year average through Jan. 28 is 82 deaths and 186 manatees died during the entire month of January 2021. Rescuers salvaged 16 dead manatees on Florida’s east coast on Jan. 28 alone, 13 of them in Brevard.
“It is to be expected because it’s a central location for manatees on the Atlantic Coast,” Ron Mezich, imperiled species management section leader for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said Wednesday.
Biologists suspect dozens more could float up dead this week as the aftereffects of the recent cold set in.
Many fingers have for years pointed at the state’s 10 coastal power plants’ warm-water discharges that lure sea cows too far north in the winter.
Long-term, state and federal biologists plan to wean manatees off the artificial warm-water refuges at the power plants, but not until more natural springs or other warm wintering areas are established.
“We don’t have a timeline yet,” Mezich said of plans to wean manatees off power plant discharges. He said FWC will have workshops this summer to discuss the issue. “We don’t want to set up another situation like this.”
Find Jim Waymer on Twitter: @JWayEnviro
Source: GANNETT Syndication Service