Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
The UME on Florida’s Atlantic coast began in December 2020. For the latest UME mortality information see Carcass examinations in the Atlantic Unusual Mortality Event during winter 2021-2022. The latest statewide mortality totals can be found on the Manatee Mortality Statistics page.
The amount a manatee needs to eat depends on size and caloric needs, which are affected by reproductive status, water temperature, health, and other factors. Estimates generally range from about 4-9% of a manatee's body weight per day.
On average, a healthy adult manatee is nearly 10 feet long and 1,000 pounds, although some manatees are even larger. Safely capturing and transporting even a small number of manatees is a significant undertaking. The FWC and federally authorized Manatee Rescue & Rehabilitation Partnership members have been leaders in developing techniques and specialized vessels, transportation vehicles, and tools that facilitate the capture of sick or injured manatees and, if needed, transporting them to permitted rehabilitation facilities. On a larger scale, such operations would prove challenging, especially given that manatees show loyalty to wintering sites and would likely seek a more familiar area after a relocation attempt.
On July 14, 2021, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) initiated a comprehensive ESA five-year status review for the West Indian manatee, which includes both subspecies, the Antillean and Florida manatees. As the USFWS completes this status review, they will continue to monitor manatee populations along the Atlantic Coast and throughout the range. They will review the best available science on the species during this process and to the greatest extent possible consider the UME and its impacts on manatee populations. The USFWS uses this review to confirm or make a change recommendation to the West Indian manatee's status under the ESA and guide future management actions for the species. They anticipate completing the status review by fall 2022. If the science supports a change in status, they will consider a rulemaking process to pursue that change within the context of existing workload and staff availability. Regardless of their status as threatened or endangered, ESA and Marine Mammal Protection Act manatee protections will continue.
Many factors are involved in the decline of aquatic vegetation. The Indian River Lagoon (IRL) has suffered significant loss of extensive seagrass beds since 2011.
Seagrass like many plants requires sunlight to grow. Since 2011, persistence of algal blooms has resulted in reduced water clarity and light penetration which led to a dramatic reduction of seagrass. Seagrass is the primary food for manatees in these systems.
While the investigation is ongoing, initial assessments indicate the high number of emaciated manatees is due to a decline in food availability. Seagrass and macro algae coverage in this region and specifically in the Indian River Lagoon has declined significantly.
A guiding principle for the proposal to supplement food for manatees is to provide a positive impact on manatees while avoiding harm to the Indian River Lagoon (IRL), including problems arising from adding nutrients. The small scale of the pilot project minimized the risk of detrimental, unintended consequences, but also provided some aid to manatees. The supplemental feeding trial that took place during winter 2021-22 was short-term and efforts were made to collect any vegetation that was not eaten, so we estimate that nutrients added through supplemental feeding would represent an insignificant contribution (<0.5%) to nutrient loading in the northern IRL. Additionally, water quality monitored was conducted and the supplemental feeding trial did not substantially affect the IRL system.
Other herbivorous or omnivorous species that live in the same water bodies may have indirectly benefited from the introduction of additional food types. However, great efforts were made to contain and remove food product that was not consumed by manatees to avoid any unintended behavioral or health consequences for species not being targeted.
Every attempt was made to recover all uneaten supplemental food from the water, therefore we anticipate no significant impact to water quality and did not see any such impacts in the water quality data collected during the trial.
We recorded how much food was provided during the supplemental feeding trial. This aided in water quality monitoring to ensure we understand the amount of new nutrients potentially being introduced to the system and how much the manatees are eating, allowing us to adapt how much to put out during each feeding session.
The Indian River Lagoon (IRL) is known to be an important foraging area for sea turtles, especially young green turtles. These turtles are herbivorous and do feed on seagrass. However, they can also feed on macroalgae and appear better able to tolerate the loss of seagrass in the IRL than the manatees have been. The FWC has dedicated staff who are monitoring sea turtle health and mortality statewide. So far, staff have not seen evidence of any unusual mortality or health-related issues for sea turtles in the IRL.
Report stranded, injured or dead sea turtles to the FWC Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922).
Improving water clarity and light penetration is essential for the restoration of healthy seagrass communities. The FWC implements aquatic habitat projects through collaborative engagement with stakeholders and partners around the State. Seagrass habitat enhancement and nursery infrastructure are important restoration projects being planned and implemented along Florida’s Atlantic coast. Some examples include: seagrass cultivation, living shoreline and oyster reef and clam restoration, and planting of native salt and freshwater species of aquatic vegetation. Learn more about these projects.
In addition, when environmental conditions allow, it will be possible for agencies and their partners to effectively implement seagrass restoration in the Indian River Lagoon at a meaningful scale.
The FWC has a section of individuals who specialize in aquatic restoration who collaborate with partners to develop and implement the restoration work. In addition, other entities including the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program, Brevard County, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and the St. Johns River Water Management District are working on additional aquatic habitat restoration efforts.
The FWC has a preliminary list of projects being considered for funds authorized by the legislature for fiscal year 21/22. At this time, we have identified a provisional list of projects in collaboration with our partners. We are continuing to work through a variety of factors that need to be considered to effectively implement those projects. For example, we need to ensure all engineering and designs are completed and coordinate with project stakeholders. Then all necessary permits must be acquired before we can begin the procurement process. Once these steps are completed, the competitive procurement process for the construction contractor can begin. Each stage of the project implementation process has challenges that may impact the ability to implement the project. If projects that have been selected cannot be implemented, we may use available funding on other important, similar projects. Each of these project phases can take from 3-6 months, so it can take 12-18 months before groundbreaking on any construction project begins. FWC staff will work diligently to expedite this process so restoration projects can start as quickly as possible.
Please note that there are other entities including the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program, Brevard County, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and the St. Johns River Water Management District which are working on additional aquatic habitat restoration efforts.
The FWC and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service jointly developed the Manatee Warm-Water Habitat Action Plan, which includes a list of Florida’s natural and industrial warm-water sites and provides guidance for research and management of these habitats into the future.
Manatees seek out warm-water areas whenever the ambient water temperature drops below about 68 degrees F. Historically, manatees relied on freshwater springs and other natural areas for refuge in winter. During the 20th century, human activities significantly altered many of these natural refuges, for example, by blocking access to springs, reducing or eliminating spring flows, and greatly altering how water flows through the Everglades into coastal creeks. With the advent of power plants and other industrial sources of warm-water discharges, many manatees began using these discharge areas as winter refuges, often resulting in strong site fidelity to one or more sites. It is estimated that over half of the Florida manatee population uses industrial sources of warm water during winter, with many hundreds being found together at some sites during the coldest periods. As power plants reduce operations, the unmitigated loss of major warm-water refuges would likely result in increased manatee cold stress related health issues and mortality.
To address these concerns, the Manatee Warm-Water Habitat Action Plan has two distinct goals. The first, a short-term goal, is to maintain the current winter range and distribution of manatees in Florida. The second, a long-term, forward-looking goal, is to identify and maintain a network of sustainable warm-water refuges with minimal dependence on artificial sites.
A significant part of the overall manatee conservation effort, meeting the plan’s goals will go a long way in securing the Florida manatee’s future.
The FWC’s Aquatic Habitat Conservation and Restoration Section specializes in aquatic habitat restoration and collaborates with partners to develop and implement restoration work. Staff have worked with partners to identify high-priority projects to complete over the next several years. Learn more about these projects.
Responding to live manatees in need of rescue remains a top priority for the FWC and partners from the Manatee Rescue & Rehabilitation Partnership. FWC manatee biologists have been working hard to respond to public reports of distressed manatees and rescue manatees that need assistance (preliminary rescue summaries).
Due to a lack of forage after a decade of seagrass loss in the Indian River Lagoon, many manatees are experiencing starvation which has resulted in unprecedented mortality on the Atlantic coast since December 2020. The effects of prolonged starvation are detrimental and include organ atrophy, metabolic and reproductive shutdown, decreased mobility, and susceptibility to secondary infection and disease. While many manatees dispersed to areas with available forage in the summer, they seek out warm water during winter and will have limited access to natural forage in the vicinity of major warm-water sites in central-east Florida. That is because most of the seagrass in the Indian River Lagoon has disappeared. Last winter showed that affected manatees will either completely fast or consume elements with no or little nutritional value, including sand or other debris. The supplemental feeding trial aims to reduce the negative health impacts of prolonged starvation and possibly reduce the numbers of deaths and manatees needing rescue.
The vegetation offered was selected in consultation with manatee nutrition experts. Although there is always some adjustment period when switching to a different diet, manatees taking advantage of the supplemental feeding adapted to this without any major issues. Manatees in managed care sometimes have a transition period to get used to eating produce.
Any food offered meets the same quality standards of produce consumed by manatees in rehabilitation facilities, and undergoes similar sanitation measures to avoid exposure to pathogens.
Since manatees will already be in close contact with one another for warm water, we do not anticipate the supplemental feeding will increase the risk of potential disease spread between manatees. Experts discussed the risks of parasite and disease transmission when manatees are gathered in feeding areas, but determined that at this time, supplemental feeding likely does not add any additional density concerns. Every winter, many manatees are in close contact with each other at warm-water sites, including natural springs and industrial thermal discharges. Transmissible diseases with severe health impacts have not been documented in Florida manatees to date. Because the health of many of these animals may be compromised from lack of food, we will continue to closely monitor and research health through clinical exams of rescued manatees brought to rehabilitation facilities and through necropsy of carcasses.
How can I help?
If you see a dead, sick, orphaned, or injured manatee, please report it to the FWC so our staff can assess and respond as appropriate. You can reach us by calling our Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-FWCC (888-404-3922) or #FWC or *FWC on a cellphone.
The trial effort was being carefully controlled in order to minimize negative impacts to the habitat or other wildlife. The vegetation offered by government officials was carefully selected in consultation with manatee nutrition experts and providing random food to manatees may lead to health complications. Feeding manatees can be considered harassment and is prohibited by state and federal law, but due to the Unusual Mortality Event designation there are emergency exceptions that allow for FWC and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff to provide food and/or water to animals impacted by the emergency declaration.
No. While we appreciate the desire to assist, we are not accepting individual food donations or food donations not acquired or vetted through our quality control processes. We worked with local farms, grocery chains, and food distributors where the source, safety, and quality of the produce is known. We were able to find sufficient supplemental feeding materials through these avenues.
There are a variety of other ways that people can help manatees. There are many reputable organizations that could use assistance with manatee-related conservation efforts, such as members of the Manatee Rescue & Rehabilitation Partnership and the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida. You can also buy a manatee license plate or donate $5 for a manatee decal.
- There are many reputable organizations that could use assistance with manatee-related conservation efforts, such as members of the Manatee Rehabilitation Partnership and the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida.
- The plate you buy matters! You can help support FWC manatee rescues and research. Next time you renew your tag, consider a “Save the Manatee” license plate! Plates are available at your local Tax Collector's office.
- Donate $5 for a manatee decal, available from local tax collectors’ offices.
- Improve Water Quality
- Eliminate the use of lawn chemicals (e.g., fertilizer, pesticide)
- Pick up dog waste
- Don’t blow leaves and grass clippings into the street or gutters; leave them on your lawn
- Wash your car on the grass or use a commercial car wash
- Switch from septic systems to municipal sewer
- Update and repair septic systems if municipal sewer is unavailable
- Plant a Florida native yard
- Participate in living shoreline restoration of oysters and mangroves
Supplemental feeding of manatees, when done by authorized personnel, does not ‘tame’ the animals. Many manatees are rescued and transported to permitted critical care facilities for treatment of injuries or illness each year, where they spend many months recovering and gaining weight. They are, of course, provided food during their time in managed care, in ways that minimize the association of people with food. After their release back into the wild, these manatees typically behave like normal, free-ranging manatees in terms of their foraging, movements, social behavior, and interactions with humans. However, it is important that the public not feed manatees because this could alter their behavior in a way that is harmful to the animals.
Authorized personnel provided supplemental food to manatees at a warm-water site already used by manatees for resting and regulating body temperature. So, there was no concern of ‘leading’ manatees into areas that they would not otherwise use.
The supplemental feeding trial was conducted in consultation with experts in manatee health, nutrition and behavior in order to provide nutritional benefits to malnourished manatees in a controlled manner while minimizing the chances of negative behavioral consequences. However, biologists have serious concerns that manatees could be placed at risk if the general public starts to feed them. The feeding of manatees is illegal and it could be harmful to manatees. If manatees are fed from boats, for example, they could learn to associate boats with food and approach the boats, risking propeller injuries or entanglement in fishing lines.
Authorized personnel temporarily conducting supplemental feeding in a controlled manner during times of seasonal stress should not alter the manatee’s long-term behavior and diet. Rescued manatees that spend months or even years in managed-care facilities such as zoos or aquariums, for instance, usually re-adapt quickly to the natural environment, including foraging on natural foods such as seagrass. During the supplemental feeding trial, manatees that took advantage of supplemental food might reduce the frequency of their trips in search of scarce seagrass or other natural forage. This would have dual benefits because the manatees would expend less energy and have less exposure to cold water in winter, hence helping to maintain their body condition above a starvation level.
Manatees show considerable variation in annual migratory patterns. Many manatees migrate to southeast Florida for the winter and return north in the spring; many spend the winter in the northern Indian River Lagoon and migrate to northeast Florida and Georgia in the spring; and some are residents in an area year-round. Providing supplemental food by authorized personnel is unlikely to prevent migration because historically there was plenty of natural food (seagrass) in the northern Indian River Lagoon and manatees regularly migrated south for the winter anyway.
Behavioral effects of the supplemental feeding trial may be of more concern for calves than for mature manatees, as the calves are learning about locations of foraging and other habitats. It is highly unlikely that the calves would become dependent on humans for food in this situation, however, because the supplemental feeding is planned to be temporary during this winter. The mother-calf pairs will forage naturally during most of the year, providing plenty of opportunities for calves to learn foraging areas and vegetation types. Lactating females were among the most affected demographic groups during the Unusual Mortality Event winter 2020 - 2021, as they expended more calories while nursing their calves, so providing them with supplemental food would likely be of benefit.
If manatees were supplementally fed year-round, that would likely have adverse behavioral outcomes. Therefore, the supplemental feeding trial was only done over a specific, short term (e.g., winter season), so that manatees can return to normal foraging and movements once the weather is warm enough for them to leave the vicinity of warm-water sites. Although manatees may remain at or return to the supplemental feeding trial site for a short while, we expect them to disperse once temperatures are warm enough. In addition, authorized personnel placed food in the water in a way that reduces the chances of manatees directly associating humans with food. We have learned from our efforts this winter and will adapt any future efforts accordingly.
Manatees are herbivores and feed on a variety of submerged, emergent, and floating plants. Manatees are known to consume all species of seagrass found in Florida, including Manatee grass, Turtle grass, Shoal grass, and others. Some common freshwater plants manatees are known to eat include Eelgrass and Coontail along with exotic species like Water hyacinth and Hydrilla.
The amount a manatee needs to eat depends on size and caloric needs, which are affected by reproductive status, water temperature, health, and other factors. Estimates generally range from about 4-9% of a manatee's body weight per day.
Feeding manatees can be considered harassment and is prohibited by state and federal law, but due to the Unusual Mortality Event designation there are emergency exceptions that allow for FWC and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff to provide food and/or water to animals impacted by the emergency declaration. While supplemental feeding of wildlife often does more harm than good when not performed in a controlled manner by species experts, feeding for conservation purposes has been shown to mostly have positive effects on wildlife health, which is why we have considered this action to help the manatees affected by the lack of natural food. We are undertaking an adaptive management action in response to the manatee die-off precipitated by the collapse of the seagrass-based ecosystem in the Indian River Lagoon, as well as declines of aquatic vegetation elsewhere along the east coast. The goals of this limited, small-scale trial are two-fold: 1) to reduce manatee mortality and 2) to reduce the number of animals in need of rescue, allowing the limited space in permitted critical care facilities to remain open for animals needing rehabilitation for other reasons.
While animals in zoos and aquariums may be fed a variety of food items, manatee health experts have concluded leafy greens are likely the best option for this limited trial to provide nutritional value, help with hydration, and have the least potential negative health impacts for wild populations.
Native or non-native aquatic vegetation were not used in this pilot effort. There are significant legal and logistical challenges with harvesting and transporting native and non-native aquatic vegetation. Harvesting and transporting aquatic vegetation at scale is very expensive and vegetation quality post-harvesting/transporting is diminished due to damage from harvesting equipment, loading and offloading methods, and compression during transport. There is also the potential for sediment and other organisms to be gathered along with the plant material, thus requiring cleaning of the vegetation to avoid added nutrients and turbidity to the Indian River Lagoon.
We utilized numerous sources for suitable food, including local farms, grocery chains, and food distributors. We worked closely with the Manatee Rescue & Rehabilitation Partnership and some Florida zoos to ensure the supplemental feeding trial did not impact their ability to properly feed animals in their care.
Commercial food types obtained for supplemental feeding efforts were sourced from agricultural productions operating under USDA standards for human consumption.
Supplemental feeding efforts did not target individual manatees. Our focus was to support the general group of manatees most affected by the absence of forage in the Indian River Lagoon. Any manatees that showed obvious signs of distress related to starvation were the focus for rescue efforts to receive treatment at critical care rehabilitation facilities.
The supplemental feeding trial was targeted and adaptable depending on the number of animals that showed up at the pilot site and their response to the food provided. The number of manatees feeding ranged from 25 to 800 animals, but it was not possible to single out specific manatees for feeding or to track how much each manatee consumed per day or over the winter season.
Because supplemental feeding of manatees is a management action that has not been tried before, we do not know how how much vegetation individual manatees consumed. The intent of this pilot effort was to start at a small scale to provide a small portion of the daily food needs for a relatively small number of manatees and adapt going forward. Feeding occurred in a group setting with manatees coming and going throughout. It was not possible to single out specific manatees for feeding or to track how much each manatee consumed per day or over the winter season.
On both the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, waters are cooling rapidly, exacerbating the Unusual Manatee Mortality Event and other manatee mortality causes. Both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) have jurisdiction over all or some of the response area. Collectively, the USFWS and FWC are leading a team of both governmental and private entities in a coordinated effort aimed to reduce the magnitude of the various immediate impacts to manatees. The Incident Command System is a standardized approach to the command, control and coordination of emergency response that provides a common hierarchy that enhances the effectiveness of those responding. Due to the shared responsibility, a Unified Command is an optimal approach.
Some of these objectives include:
- Ensure responder and public safety by incorporating the appropriate risk management process in all actions.
- Minimize overall mortality of manatees as well as mitigating the effects of dead animals on the ecosystem.
- Establish a Unified Command to coordinate management and response activities with the FWC and recognize their role as co-authority on manatee matters.
- Define objectives, strategies, and tactics needed to successfully manage potential problematic scenarios well in advance.
- As needed, provide management support, coordination, and resources for actions that aid impacted manatees. Tactics and strategies shall be agreed upon by USFWS and FWC.
- Ensure full compliance with all Federal, State and local regulations.
- Provide timely and coordinated information to stakeholders, cooperators, and the public about current incident status, overall goals, as well as strategies and tactics being used.
A UME declaration means that the event is unexpected and involves a significant die-off of a marine mammal population, and requires immediate response. Investigating these events is key to understanding the cause, understanding potential impacts on the population as well as developing conservation measures that protect the species affected and the marine environment where the UME is taking place.
Florida has invested over $2 million annually for manatee conservation. FWC staff respond to public reports of dead or distressed manatees. You can reach us by calling our Wildlife Alert Hotline at 1-888-404-FWCC (1-888-404-3922) or #FWC or *FWC on a cellphone. FWC staff and partners continue to prioritize response to manatees in distress. The FWC coordinates manatee rescue operations and transports manatees as needed to partnering critical care facilities. The FWC and collaborators are working with critical care facilities to get a better understanding of problems in manatees rescued from the Atlantic coast region. Manatee Rescue Information
The FWC retrieves carcasses of dead animals to collect data that will provide insight into the high level of mortality along Florida’s Atlantic Coast. FWC manatee biologists verify and record the location of all reported manatee carcasses. Depending on the condition and current circumstances, staff collect biological information and samples, and may perform a necropsy to determine cause of death. Staff often leave carcasses in secluded areas to decompose naturally as it is a source of food for many other species.
The FWC monitors impacts of large-scale mortality events of the manatee population through assessing multiple paths of information including adult survival rates and reproduction that help improve our understanding of population dynamics. As with all species, future resiliency is associated with population size and distribution, growth rate, health, and habitat quality. Together these factors will impact the ability of manatees to cope with future changes and are the focus of conservation work.
Workshop on July 29, 2021
The FWC invited over 160 individuals from approximately 60 organizations and agencies (e.g., city, county, state, and federal government agencies, non-profit organizations, universities, private industry) to attend an all-day virtual workshop about aquatic habitat restoration targets, opportunities, and funding along Florida’s east coast, with a special focus on the Indian River Lagoon.
The July 29, 2021 workshop’s morning session included background information presentations addressing the recent manatee mortalities, history of the ecosystem changes in the affected areas, barriers to estuarine habitat recovery, and permitting required to complete restoration and enhancement projects. During the afternoon session, brief presentations of some of the short and long-term on-going and potential estuarine habitat restoration projects in the Indian River Lagoon were presented. The 100+ attendees then focused their discussions on facilitating collaboration, ways to scale the projects, how to avoid duplication of efforts, and how and where to focus restoration projects in the short- and long-term.
The details from the workshop provided FWC staff with a more complete picture of some of the potential work being planned for the IRL and surrounding areas and with which partners to engage. This larger understanding will aid FWC staff in their discussions about aquatic habitat restoration projects, especially those related to the $8 million provided to the Division of Habitat and Species Conservation during fiscal year 21-22 for habitat restoration related projects that will benefit manatees. The success of the projects discussed could help provide momentum to larger, costlier, and more coordinated restoration efforts in the future.
The general area targeted for supplemental feeding is the northern Indian River Lagoon, where the highest concentration of manatee carcasses was found last winter due to the lack of sufficient natural forage. Many thin manatees have been sighted in this region over the past year. Several potential sites that manatees regularly use in this region were evaluated in terms of current manatee use, likelihood that manatees will find the sites, degree of warmth, level of disturbance, existing protections, ease of access for logistics, security, and other factors.
Efforts were made to minimize human interaction with manatees during the supplemental feeding trial. Feeding was being conducted and overseen by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and FWC staff with knowledge of manatee biology, behavior and health issues. Food was delivered to the site and stored in refrigerated trailers. Efforts were made to minimize potential interactions with boats and public presence in general. The feeding site at the Temporary Field Response Station was relatively small and in close proximity to a known warm water aggregation site. Public access to the site was prohibited.
A Temporary Field Response Station (TFRS) was established at the FPL’s Cape Canaveral Clean Energy Center under the Unified Command framework. The TFRS allowed for various manatee related operations to take place, such as manatee rescues, carcass recovery, limited field health assessment, and supplemental feeding and associated monitoring.
Most warm-water sites already have some type of manatee protection zone in place and a temporary no-entry zone at the actual location of the supplemental feeding trial was in effect for 90-days and has seen been lifted. As of April 2022, no additional manatee protection zones are being considered.
The supplemental feeding trial began in December 2021 after we worked to secure needed resources and with species experts to ensure that the timing was most effective. The feeding trial ended on March 31, 2022 and the TFRS was broken down and returned to its original use.
The supplemental feeding trial was discontinued on March 31, 2022 as manatees began to disperse from the warm-water sites.
Supplemental feeding of manatees will not prevent all manatee mortality due to the ongoing lack of forage available to them in the Indian River Lagoon. But the expectation is that a limited, small-scale pilot study type effort could provide sufficient food to keep the body condition of some manatees above starvation level until they dispersed from their winter warm water sites in the spring to find food in other areas.
The small-scale, supplemental feeding effort piloted this past winter may help guide any future supplemental feeding considerations.
FWC and USFWS staff are reviewing available data and consulting with manatee behavior, habitat, and health experts to better understand any potential short- and long-term impacts of continued supplemental feeding efforts. We hope to have a better understanding of next steps in late summer 2022/early fall 2022.