Hoping to protect manatees as they congregate this winter, state wildlife officials Tuesday issued an emergency rule that will temporarily prevent boating in an area of the Indian River Lagoon near a Florida Power & Light power plant.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission rule will create a “no entry zone,” effective Nov. 15, in water adjacent to FPL’s Cape Canaveral Energy Center and in an intake canal. Manatees gather near the power plant in the winter because of warm water.
The commission also issued a similar 90-day emergency rule in December 2021, as it grappled with a record number of manatee deaths. Emergency rules are only temporary. A notice published Tuesday in the Florida Administrative Register said the commission during a meeting Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 will start the process of creating a permanent rule on the issue.
The Indian River Lagoon is a vital habitat for manatees, particularly during the winter. But Florida had a record 1,101 manatee deaths in 2021 and has had at least 726 this year, with many of the deaths linked to starvation because of a lack of seagrass for food.
State and federal wildlife officials last winter took the highly unusual step of feeding lettuce to manatees that congregated near the Brevard County power plant to try to help prevent starvation. The rule notice published Tuesday indicated they plan to feed manatees again as part of broader efforts to prevent deaths.
“Given the current decline of available food sources, the increased manatee mortality rate and the onset of winter temperatures, this temporary no entry zone is fair and necessary to protect both vessel operators and manatees during this manatee field response which includes rescue, monitoring and supplemental feeding,” the notice said. “In the creation of this emergency rule, the agency is taking the limited action necessary for human and manatee protection.”
The notice also said the large number of manatees around the power plant “are likely to cause a navigational hazard to any boaters utilizing the waterway within the area that the congregation is occurring. This hazard creates an immediate public safety issue that could result in injury to the public due to collisions or in the process of attempting to avoid such collisions.”
The commission had been scheduled to consider such a rule during a Sept. 28 meeting, which was canceled because of Hurricane Ian.
Last year, 358 of the reported manatee deaths occurred in Brevard County. As of Oct. 28, a reported 337 manatees had died in Brevard County this year, according to Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission data.
The emergency rule was published after Bear Warriors United, an environmental group, filed a federal lawsuit Friday alleging that the state is violating the Endangered Species Act because of septic tanks and sewage-treatment plants discharging into the Indian River Lagoon in Brevard County.
The lawsuit contends that nitrogen discharged from septic tanks and sewage-treatment plants has led to algae blooms that have destroyed seagrass beds, imperiling the important source of food for manatees.