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Lettuce grower near Belle Glade helping to feed starving manatees

CBS12's Albert Pefley reports on how lettuce growers near Belle Glade help to feed starving manatees due to there being a lack in seagrass. (TKM Bengard Farms, LLC){p}{/p}
CBS12's Albert Pefley reports on how lettuce growers near Belle Glade help to feed starving manatees due to there being a lack in seagrass. (TKM Bengard Farms, LLC)

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Florida manatees are in trouble. There are only a few thousand of them left.

A commercial grower in Belle Glade is supplying lettuce the state is using to feed starving manatees whose primary food source, sea grass, is becoming more and more scarce in our polluted waterways.

"As long as we can help sustain the population, this is fantastic!" said Stephen Basore, director of Food Safety and one of the principal owners of TKM Bengard Farms, LLC. in Belle Glade.

He showed us a large field of romaine lettuce near Belle Glade. Most of it goes to schools, cruise ships, restaurants and supermarkets. But some of it will go to feed starving manatees in the Indian River Lagoon in Brevard County.

TKM Bengard Farms is the largest grower of romaine lettuce in the eastern U.S.

"We've had a great season this season. The weather has cooperated with us and we have a lot of beautiful product," Basore said.

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Each week, the state buys about 3,000 pounds of romaine lettuce from TKM Bengard Farms to feed manatees, which officials learned through trial and error, seems to be their favorite.

"Now that we get to not just feed people but you know, support wildlife that's in trouble, support the manatees that's just a wonderful program to be a part of," Basore said.

This is the second winter that TKM Bengard Farms has provided lettuce for the program, which feeds manatees in the Indian River Lagoon near Melbourne, a primary habitat on the east coast of the state.

"The feeding program is important kind of as a stopgap measure," said Kim Dinkins, senior conservation associate of Save the Manatee Club, a non-profit group.

Dinkins says the lettuce will help the manatees survive the loss of sea grass the animals are used to eating.

"If we were not feeding the manatees, what do you fear would happen?" we asked Dinkins.

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"I believe that we would certainly have more mortalities due to this extensive seagrass loss," she said.

Manatees are currently listed as a threatened species protected by state and federal law.

Dinkins says the last count in 2018 showed about 8,000 manatees in Florida. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website, the best estimate of Florida's manatee population is 7,520 to 10,280 manatees.

In 2021, about 800 manatees died of starvation.

If the state decides to expand the manatee feeding program, Basore says they can easily provide more romaine if needed.

The lettuce growing season in south Florida runs from the beginning of December through the end of April.

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