FRONTENAC, Fla. — Scott Calleson took cover behind a camouflage tarp, then tossed a head of romaine lettuce to a crowd of restless manatees who vied for position to munch on a leafy free lunch.
Like the others feeding the sea cows Friday at the Florida Power & Light natural gas power plant, Calleson, a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, prefers not to be seen, at least not by sea cows. If the manatees catch a glimpse of his bounty, they will begin to bond him and other humans with their meals and stop fending for themselves.
“We don’t want them associating people with food,” said Tom Reinert, regional director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, standing along a dock in the FPL plant’s intake channel. .
A record 1,100 manatees died of starvation last year due to a man-made famine that choked out seagrass beds – the staple of the gentle giants’ diet. Island outcrops in Florida’s estuaries have become graveyards for sea cows as more manatees succumb to the ravages of hunger every day.
The death toll was so heavy that in April the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared the death an unusual mortality event. In a first-of-its-kind pilot project aimed at averting further famines, state and federal biologists fed manatees at FPL plant since mid December. They plan to feed the manatees until the end of March.
Save the sea cows:Federal wildlife officials approve ‘unprecedented’ plan to feed starving Florida manatees
Using a system specially designed for this purpose, the power station heated the water in the canal on an emergency basis this winter to prevent as many manatees as possible from freezing to death.
“We try to feed the animals to keep them from going through rehab,” Calleson told reporters Friday during a tour of the manatee feeding area at the FPL plant. SeaWorld was the only place in Florida to recently take in sick and hungry manatees: “It’s kind of a proof of concept.”
Some 800 sea cows crowded into the FPL plant last week as temperatures plunged into the 30s and the lagoon fell into the 50s. About 175 manatees mingled and munched inside the powerhouse’s steel-walled intake area on Friday.
“They’re not picky eaters,” Calleson said.
Two decades ago, Calleson was among Florida’s chief architects of a vast array of controversial slow-speed manatee areas – the bane of many Brevard boaters – that now line the shores of most of the 156-mile along the Indian River Lagoon.
But that 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. However, two decades of slowing captains failed to save enough manatees. Calleson and his colleagues hand-feed the species they have spent their careers trying to protect through shipping restrictions and other means.
Bright green lettuce floats along the gray, cloudy waters, with sea cow bumps breaking the surface as state and federal biologists toss more heads of lettuce to appease the hungry crowd of manatees.
One manatee uses another as a sort of table, sliding its snout over the other manatee’s back to chew lettuce. Tails and fins flap and fly in occasional rapid frenzies of splashing, probably a peck on the lettuce or perhaps just the inevitable marine mammal thrashings of a crowd of fin-to-fins in such a tight space.
State and federal biologists stressed Friday that the general public should not try to feed manatees. Instead, Reinert said those who want to help should contribute to the nonprofit Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida, which is raising money to support FWC feeding manatees in the wild this winter.
When FPL decommissioned its Space Race-era oil plant in 2010 and built a natural gas plant, the company installed an electric-only heating system to keep the sea cows warm while the plant was built. new factory. The plant draws water from the lagoon to prevent equipment overheating and discharges it back into the lagoon.
This warm water near the two power plants for decades had caused manatees to overwinter 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. That day it was around 71 degrees.
The power station discharges about 620 million gallons of hot water into the lagoon daily, about 25% less than the old plant.
This winter, trailers full of romaine lettuce adorn the banks of the FPL plant. Sea cows eat about 2,500 pounds of lettuce per day. Adults average about 1,000 pounds and eat 100 pounds of lettuce a day. If the manatees don’t get enough water from the lettuce, large jugs of fresh water are nearby, which the 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, following its worst year of seagrass starvation.
It’s too early to tell how many more could die this week from the recent cold, biologists say. It could take weeks for the damaging effects of freezing water temperatures to set in and kill the most vulnerable sea cows.
At least 97 manatees have died so far this year, through January 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 recovered 16 dead manatees on Florida’s east coast on Jan. 28 alone, including 13 in Brevard.
“That’s to be expected because it’s a central location for manatees on the Atlantic coast,” Ron Mezich, chief of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s endangered species management section, said Wednesday.
Biologists suspect dozens more could be floating dead this week as the aftermath of the recent cold sets in.
For years, many fingers have pointed to hot water discharges from the state’s 10 coastal power plants that lure sea cows too far north in the winter.
In the long term, state and federal biologists plan to wean manatees from artificial hot water refuges at 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 from power plant releases. He said FWC will hold workshops this summer to discuss the issue. “We don’t want to create another situation like this.”
Find Jim Waymer on Twitter: @JWayEnviro