Will $8 million more save the manatees this year? The state is hoping
Florida wildlife officials are set to get another $8 million this year — more than double the usual manatee recovery cash on hand — to help sea cows rebound from a year that's on pace to be the deadliest on record for the threatened species.
The manatees appear to be starving across the state from a shortage of seagrass decades in the making. The extra money would only be for one year, and state biologists aren't sure yet how they'd spend the extra cash or what difference it might make.
Already, at least 695 manatees have died this year, 292 of them in Brevard County, (42%), 56 (8%) in Broward County, and 53 (7.6%) in Lee County. A record 830 manatees died in 2013, a year in which a similar mass death event occurred in the Indian River Lagoon and 244 manatees died on the Space Coast.
By far, the biggest cause of death this year is starvation, FWC says, thought to have claimed many of the 463 dead manatees that were not able to be examined due to COVID-19 restrictions at the state's veterinary pathology lab in St. Petersburg.
The idea for this year's $8 million in additional funding is to improve Florida's springs and other manatee hotspot habitats. But the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission won't say yet how they'd use the money, which was approved under the Florida House of Representatives supplemental funding list.
In October 2020, a special state and federal task force that has spent decades looking for ways to wean manatees off warm-water discharges from 10 power plants that lure them too far north in the winter, proposed creating new warm-water areas by releasing warm saltwater from the aquifer, or using solar water heating or gas-fired water heaters to create safer alternative wintering sites farther south.
A few years ago, the South Florida Water Management District built special pools south of the Port of the Islands marina in Collier County to replace lost manatee warm-water habitat, by constructing a series of three 20-feet-deep pools that access the warmer, saline surficial aquifer
The panel proposed getting the power industry that lured manatees north in the first place to pay for such solutions, but their feasibility is uncertain. Whether or not the extra state money could be used to help with these projects is unclear.
The $8 million comes as part of the state's “sprinkle list,” a last-minute collection of budget items introduced into the state’s spending plan.
The money will more than double the funding that Florida's most popular marine mammal receives yearly. Most of the state's manatee protection efforts are paid for by the specialty license plates and decals, boat registration fees and donations Floridians make. Floridians give generously to the gentle sea cow.
The money from the specialty license plates, decals, boat registration fees and donations goes into a Trust Fund managed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The fund's revenues for Fiscal Year 2019-2020 totaled $3.9 million, according to FWC's annual report on the Trust Fund.
Appropriations from the Trust Fund for the same period were $3.57 million to FWC plus $313,310 for manatee research at Mote Marine Laboratory (Mote) in Sarasota, and a service charge to General Revenue of $308,401 that most trust funds are required by law to pay.
Jim Waymer is environment reporter at FLORIDA TODAY.
Contact Waymer at 321-242-3663
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