Florida environmental officials have resorted to feeding West Indian manatees in a last-ditch effort to prevent potentially hundreds of them from starving to death. The reason the gentle ocean mammals are starving in the first place, though, is partly humans’ doing, a result of polluted waterways and climate change-fueled algae blooms.
Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced the experimental feeding effort will take place at select manatee gathering locations and will involve providing them with heads of lettuce and cabbage delivered via a conveyor belt-like device. Officials were quick to point out that this is being led by wildlife experts and that the public shouldn’t hand feed the manatees. Getting enough food for the bulky sea creatures won’t be an easy task either, considering an adult can normally consume an excess of 100 pounds (45 kilograms) of seagrass per day under normal circumstances.
But these aren’t normal circumstances. A record 841 West Indian manatees died in just the first six months of 2021, according to data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. State data shows that 1,017 manatees have died as of mid-November, or around 10% of the total Florida population.
A big driver of the manatee die-off is water pollution, which has choked out the seagrass the creatures normally eat. Outbreaks of toxic algae bloom scientists believe are linked to climate change have further led to mass manatee deaths. For a sense of scale, the St. Johns River Water Management District estimates around 58% of seagrass has disappeared since 2009, something they say was caused primarily by a decrease in nutrients in the water resulting from runoff.
“This unprecedented event is worth unprecedented actions,” Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Assistant Executive Director Thomas Eason said at a press conference.
Officials are reportedly planning to focus their feeding efforts in waters near the Florida Power & Light power plant near Cape Canaveral along the Indian River Lagoon, an area where more than 500 manatees have died just this year. Manatees often gather near the plants because of the warm water they discharge. Though wildlife officials are considering other actions like restoring water quality and attempting to reduce algae blooms, those will take time, something the manatees don’t have. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission data shows how the mammals were hardest in the first three months of 2021, where around 186, 230, and 194 animals perished respectively. The monthly deaths quickly dropped off in April, but the conservation community has remained worried.
During the summer, a coalition of 16 Florida environmental groups and businesses pushed Gov. Ron DeSantis to issue a state of emergency for the Indian River Lagoon but the state’s Department of Environmental Protection rejected those calls, saying it was “not necessary at this time,” according to the TCPalm. And there are fears now that deaths could spike again as more manatees migrate and winter’s colder months approach. The feeding program also indicates things are in dire straits.
Florida manatees have struggled for years and were first added to the endangered species list back in 1967. More recently in 2013, an estimated 830 manatees tragically died of exposure to red tide. Despite that, the species overall population has grown over the past half-century, reaching about 6,620 in 2017. The Trump administration responded to those figures by moving the manatee from “endangered” to “threatened,” a designation that comes with fewer protections. Biologists and conservation groups heavily opposed the change in status. This year’s die-off will only intensify calls to get the sea cows more help.