Florida Wildlife Officials Move to Feed Starving Manatees in Experimental Conservation Approach

The unprecedented feeding plan comes as more than 1,000 manatees—about 15 percent of the state’s total population—have died this year

A large grey manatee submerged in blue water
Human-caused pollution is killing the seagrass that manatees feed on. 33karen33 via Getty Images

This year’s record manatee die-off in Florida has spurred officials to take the drastic step of feeding the beloved animals to save them from starvation. Typically, feeding wild animals is discouraged, but more than 1,000 manatees have died in 2021—around 15 percent of the state’s total population. The unprecedented feeding plan is a last-ditch effort to sustain the state’s manatee population, which has been dying from starvation as human-caused pollution kills the seagrass they feed on.

“The consequences are too dire not to at least give this a try,” says Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, to Catrin Einhorn for the New York Times

This week, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state officials plan to unveil their proposal for feeding marine mammals, starting in one location in the Indian River Lagoon. The plan is to drop food for the hungry manatees as they gather in their warm-water wintering spots. The experimental feeding program's menu will likely feature lettuce, cabbage, and other manatee-friendly greens delivered in a controlled manner, like a conveyer belt, reports Curt Anderson for the Associated Press.

Each year, hundreds of the slow-moving sea cows are struck by boats, but deaths from starvation have outpaced watercraft collisions in 2021. Manatees rely mainly on seagrass beds to sustain them throughout the winter, many of which have been smothered by pollutants. Fertilizer runoff, discharged wastewater, and climate change has caused thick algae blooms that block out the sunlight seagrass needs to survive. 

A healthy Florida manatee can grow to be ten feet and weigh thousands of pounds, which means they need lots of edible vegetation to survive. Many of the state’s usually chubby manatees have ribs visible through their skin and struggle to swim normally, according to the Times. Even with the new feeding program, biologists fear hundred more manatees will die of starvation this winter.

“They’re having a very hard time finding food,” says Rose to the Washington Post's Lori Rozsa. “The majority are quite malnourished.”

Florida manatees were among the first animals to be listed as an endangered species when the federal government protected them in 1967. The increased protections helped manatee numbers rebound from around 1,000 manatees to 8,000 individuals by 2017—enough to have their conservation status to be downgraded from “endangered” to “threatened.” This year, a record 1,017 manatees have died as of November 19, which is nearly twice as many deaths as previous years, according to state figures. By comparison, only 593 deaths were recorded in 2020, leading some of the state’s politicians to push to restore the manatee’s endangered status.

Wildlife officials emphasize that they’ll be the ones doing the supplemental feeding, noting that individuals should not start tossing lettuce into manatee gather spots. Giving food to wild animals can disrupt migration patterns or spread disease, for example, so it’s best to leave it to the experts.

“Under no circumstances do we want people feeding manatees," Rose says to the AP. "It’s illegal, and remains so.” 

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