Record release day for rehabilitated manatees

A rehabilitated manatee is prepared for release in Florida. Image: MRP

A record 12 Florida manatees have been released back into their natural habitat in a single day.

The protected marine animals were released into warm water refuge Blue Spring State Park, Florida, US, by the Manatee Rescue & Rehabilitation Partnership (MRP). Many of the manatees were ill, injured or orphaned as calves and have spent the past several years rehabilitating in aquariums and zoos across the state.

MRP partners release a manatee into the warm water of Blue Spring State Park. Image: MPR

“We're excited those who rescued, transported and cared for these manatees are here as we return them into Blue Spring for the final phase of their recovery.”

Andy Garrett, Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission

Known as sea cows, manatees are large, docile animals that live throughout the Caribbean Sea and Florida. They have been designated in Florida as the official state marine mammal and are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

However, due to widespread loss of their favourite food seagrass, Florida manatees are dying at an alarming rate. Almost 2,000 manatee deaths were recorded in 2021 and 2022, accounting for almost a fifth of the state's population.

The lack of seagrass, caused in part by pollution, has led to wildlife agencies providing supplemental lettuce in attempts to nourish the animals and experts are reporting more positive results. Recorded numbers of deaths in the state was down in winter 2022/3, and according to wildlife agencies, manatees in the wild seem to be in better health.

Rehabilitators prepare to release a manatee into Blue Spring State Park. Image: MRP

Monica Ross, partnership chairman and director at Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, said, “Over the past several years, we have been called upon to rescue an alarmingly high number of injured, sick and starving manatees off the Florida coastline. Through the efforts of the MRP partners, I am thrilled that we were able to return the highest number of manatees to their natural environment in a single day.”

As the animals were released on 14 February 2023, Andy Garrett, manatee rescue coordinator from the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, said, “Today, we want to recognise the outstanding dedication and efforts made by the stranding network partners and the MRP organisations who worked together to rescue and rehabilitate these 12 manatees.

“We are excited that those who safely rescued, transported and cared for these manatees are here now as we return them into Blue Spring to start the final phase of their recovery.”

All the released manatees will wear GPS tracking devices to enable researchers to monitor manatee movement and ensure acclimation to their natural habitat for the next year. The data collected through routine behaviour monitoring is critical to understanding how orphan manatees adapt to the natural habitat and find warm water for winter survival without the skills they should have learned from their mothers.

Monitoring will also be critical to understand how manatees are adjusting to the fluctuating habitat conditions, enabling specialists to ensure young animals are new learning lessons in survival, such as new migration routes.

MRP is a group of non-profit, private, state and federal entities dedicated to manatee conservation through collaborative partnership. The 12 animals were successfully cared for by various partner organisations including Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Miami Seaquarium and Save the Manatee Club.

Image: NOAA, Unsplash