Biologists take drastic measures to save Florida manatees at risk of starvation

Editor's Note: The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission runs a Wildlife Alert Hotline for reports of manatees at risk. You can call 888-404-FWCC (3922), Call #FWC or *FWC from your cell phone if you see a manatee in distress.

Last year was the deadliest on record for manatees, many of whom starved to death because of a lack of seagrass. A die-off is happening again this year, and federal and state officials as well as volunteers in Florida are trying to save starving manatees with a pilot-feeding project this winter. But as Miles O'Brien reports, there are also larger environmental problems in the water.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Last year was the deadliest on record for manatees. Many of these large aquatic mammals starve to death, and a die-off is happening again this year.

    Federal and state officials, as well as volunteers in Florida, are trying to save starving manatees with a pilot feeding project this winter.

    But, as science correspondent Miles O'Brien reports, there are larger environmental problems in the water that cannot be solved with emergency feedings.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    It is a desperate measure for a desperate time, Florida manatees, freezing and famished, getting a handout from humans at a power plant near Titusville.

    These gentle giants, also called sea cows, gravitate to the warm water discharges from power plants and natural springs every winter. But on the East Coast this year, like last, they're arriving hungry and weak. The seagrass they subsist on has all but disappeared.

    Ron Mezich is with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

    Ron Mezich, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission: We're here for a purpose now that we're helping animals. But, truth be told, we'd rather have the animals not here.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Last year, about 1,100 of them died, mostly due to starvation compounded by cold weather. So far this winter, about 130 thirty have succumbed to various causes statewide.

    Nearby, aquatic biologist Pat Rose is keeping tabs on the species that he has spent more than 45 years trying to protect. He is executive director of the Save the Manatee Club.

    Patrick Rose, Executive Director, Save the Manatee Club: It's the first time ever that manatees have been supplemental-fed during the winter.

    It's started off OK, but it's got a long ways to go if it's going to really take care of all the manatees that are going to need it.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The drone documents the crisis in vivid detail.

    What are you looking for?

  • Patrick Rose:

    Well, we're looking at not only how many manatees are here, but, particularly, we're looking at mostly what body condition they're in, how many of them are very lean, on their way towards starvation, and then looking for those that would be very sick, that would be having trouble balancing in the water, sideways-swimming, those kinds of things that tell us that manatee is really in trouble and it's going to need help.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    About 90 malnourished and injured manatees are getting help in intensive care facilities like this one at ZooTampa.

  • Woman:

    Roughly, I have seen him eat about 10 heads this morning.

  • Molly Lippincott ZooTampa,:

    OK, that's pretty good actually. I'm glad everybody is stable, stable after the last few days, where they were — it was a little hectic, so…

  • Woman:

    Yes.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Molly Lippincott is the curator of Florida and manatees. Twenty of them are here, pushing this dedicated staff to its limits.

    They bottle-feed orphaned calves every four hours around the clock for several months. One of them, Flapjack, who got his name because he was so emaciated, his head looked flat, arrived here October 20, but now he is doing much better.

  • Molly Lippincott:

    We have a pretty tiny team. We definitely work very hard. We always figure the animals come first in a lot of situations. Your home life may take a little bit of a ding in order to do what's best for these animals.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    At the root of the problem is an environmental collapse in Florida's Indian River Lagoon. It's a shallow body of water between the mainland and the barrier islands that spans 150 miles from Cape Canaveral to Jupiter. It was a manatee haven.

    Dennis Hanisak is a research professor at Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce. He took us on a three-hour tour of the lagoon.

  • Dennis Hanisak, Florida Atlantic University Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute:

    It's definitely a lagoon in peril.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    We were hunting for seagrass. The average adult manatee forages about 100 pounds of it every day. But all we saw was a lot of algae, which blocks sunshine from reaching seagrass rooted at the bottom, killing it.

  • Dennis Hanisak:

    So, we probably have lost at least 80 percent of the grass, but…

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Eighty percent?

  • Dennis Hanisak:

    Yes, but there are many areas where there's zero seagrass, I mean, zero percent. 2011, when we started the blooms, that's really when everything did the catastrophic decline.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    A huge algae bloom in 2011 was just for starters. Ever since, recurring algal events known as brown tides have pushed this rich ecosystem out of balance.

    In 2016, a brown tide starved the water of oxygen enough to trigger a massive fish kill. The problem has grown along with the human population around the lagoon, now more than 1.5 million, an increase of 50 percent in the past 25 years.

    Today, there are more than 300,000 septic systems in the six adjacent counties, and many sewage treatment plants are antiquated. And take a look at this distinct brown patch in the lagoon. It is freshwater runoff, filled with phosphorus, nitrogen and decomposing vegetation. Increasing amounts of it are funneling into the lagoon thanks to rapid development, agriculture and flood control discharges from Lake Okeechobee.

    So all these things are major red flags, warning signs that nature is giving us, right?

  • Dennis Hanisak:

    Yes. Now we got now we have got dying manatees starving because not having enough seagrass. So, I guess that's the next sign that, yes, indeed, we have a very serious situation here.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Dennis Hanisak is cultivating a potential solution, perfecting a technique for growing seagrass in a nursery, something that's never been done before.

    So this would be the perfect manatee buffet right here, right?

  • Dennis Hanisak:

    Oh, I think, if a manatee — if we could get a manatee here, that manatee would be very happy.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    But, of course, the seagrass won't be happy in the lagoon until the algae clears. By some estimates, that would take $5 billion and 20 years.

    Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has committed $53 million over 10 years to remove 3,000 septic systems. And Brevard County has imposed a half-cent sales tax for lagoon restoration. And yet some state legislators are going against that current, proposing a bill to make it easier for developers to destroy seagrass beds.

    None of this deters the team at ZooTampa. It is release day for Baylo, a 500 pound adult female now back in good health after exposure to red tide.

    Veterinarian Cynthia Stringfield is vice president of animal health, conservation and education.

  • Cynthia Stringfield, ZooTampa:

    This is a short term solution. So we patch them up. We make them better. We do as much as we can.

    But, as you can see, we have a finite space, so we can only take so many. One year of an event like this is really concerning. But if this continues it, it could be catastrophic for the population.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    For now, all they can do is take stock of success one animal at a time.

  • Woman:

    Almost there, lady friend.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    It is clearly not sustainable, but for those committed to saving these gentle creatures, it's not optional either.

  • Woman:

    All right, ready? One, two three.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Miles O’Brien:

    In the late 1970s there were fewer than 1,000 manatees left in Florida. But after the state imposed boat speed protection zones to prevent propeller strikes that were killing so many of them, they rebounded.

    Before this die-off, the population had reached about 8,000. But now the problem has deeper roots, and the hungry manatees may not have time to wait for the solutions.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Miles O'Brien along Florida's Indian River Lagoon.

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