While seagrass populations are diminishing, manatee populations are plummeting as well. State officials decided to combat this loss by feeding the manatees lettuce.
Florida’s manatees are considered gentle giants of the springs and coastal waters and are often synonymous with Floridian tourism. But what happens when the giants can’t find enough food?
For the past two winters, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has partaken in an experimental feeding program aimed at lowering manatee deaths caused by starvation.
The supplemental food of choice? Lettuce.
Since an extreme cold event in 2011, harmful algae blooms have significantly wiped out seagrass coverage – manatees’ largest food supply – especially in the Indian River Lagoon. Manatees take refuge in warm spots such as in the southeastern Lagoon in the winter.
More than 2,000 manatees have died between Dec. 2020 and Dec. 2022 due to collapsing populations of seagrass. FWC chose a leafy green whose marketed value surpassed $4 billion domestically in 2022 to try and combat mass starvation.
“The wintertime is when they have this horrible choice between dying of cold stress or dying of starvation,” Patrick Rose, an Aquatic Biologist and Executive Director of the Save the Manatee Club states. “And that’s why it’s so critically important to feed them in the wintertime. Their metabolism won’t allow them to be in that cold water and be able to digest food.”
While choosing what to feed manatees in the wintertime, Rose said logistics is a huge factor. The choice not only needs to be a viable food option for manatees but something that can’t negatively impact the rest of the ecosystem if introduced, such as planting an invasive alternative to seagrass.
“So really at the end of the day, the choice was made to go with lettuce because we’ve had decades and decades of experience of manatees being fed lettuce in captivity,” Rose said.
The lettuce isn’t as out of place in the Indian River Lagoon as one might think. According to Rose, often after storms, a plethora of seagrass gets uprooted by the wind or extreme current, causing the dislodged plants to float at the surface of the water.
Manatees are known to eat from these floating masses as opposed to grazing from the underwater blades as they usually do. The handlers made an effort to not let the manatees know the food was coming from humans due to tarps put in place, so the lettuce even further resembled the disembodied seagrass.
Though imperfect, the lettuce appears to be Florida Officials' best chance at helping the manatees combat starvation in the winter months.
“It’s almost like hospital food,” Rose said.“So you know, everything that’s in it might not be what you’d go out and order at a restaurant, but you know you’re going to be okay, and you’re going to survive on it while you’re in the hospital.”
To report a sick, injured, or dead manatee, please alert FWC’s Wildlife Hotline at 888-404-3922.