Florida to Test Manatee Feeding Program as Beloved Animals Are Dying at Record Rate

Florida officials are set to announce a test feeding program for the state's manatee population, an unusual move that they hope will lower the record number of more than 1,000 manatee deaths this year.

State environmental officials said pollution caused by humans promotes the growth of blue algae and other organisms in the oceans, which stifles the growth of underwater seagrass, the main source of food for the manatees.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other state environmental officials will announce a plan this week to test a plan in a specific part of Florida to see how it would work for the wider population.

Feeding wild animals is typically not allowed, but the manatee situation has become an emergency so drastic steps need to be taken, according to Save The Manatee Club Executive Director Patrick Rose.

"It's the entire ecosystem that is affected by this and will be affected for a decade to come," Rose told the Associated Press. "This is a necessary stopgap measure. It is a problem created by man and man is going to have to solve it."

The plan would reportedly involve feeding manatees lettuce, cabbage and other greens in a controlled manner at a Florida Power and Light plant in Cape Canaveral, a popular spot for manatees to group in the colder months due to the warm water produced by the plant.

Rose emphasized the plan is only to be conducted by officials at the one location, and the general population feeding manatees or other wild animals is still prohibited.

Florida, Manatees, Starving, Feeding Program
Giving food to wild animals normally is considered off limits, but the dire situation in Florida with more than 1,000 manatees dying from starvation due to manmade pollution is leading officials to consider an unprecedented feeding plan. Above, a group of manatees in a canal where discharge from a nearby Florida Power & Light plant warms the water in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on December 28, 2010. Lynne Sladky/Associated Press File

The club was co-founded in 1981 by Florida troubadour Jimmy Buffet and former governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham.

A Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman said in an email that the agency "does have approval to move forward on a limited feeding trial" but that details are not yet finalized. A formal announcement is expected later this week.

Manatees have long struggled to survive with humans. Hundreds of the slow-moving animals are struck every year by boats, which has led to no-wake manatee zones throughout Florida with violations punishable by significant fines. But the starvation threat has led to a record 1,017 manatee deaths as of November 19, according to state figures.

As winter looms, even in Florida, another bad year is expected.

This has been caused mainly by runoff from farms, urban areas and sewage that promotes growth of blue-green algae and other harmful organisms. Climate change that worsens the algae blooms is also a factor.

And it's not just manatees. People's health can be affected by the algae blooms along with the health of a wide range of aquatic creatures, from crabs to dolphins. Aside from protecting the animals, there is an economic loss for boat captains, sightseeing tours and others who flock to Florida for the chance to see these creatures.

"Literally, saving manatees is part of saving the ecosystem. If we can get this taken care of, manatees will flourish. If we don't, they won't," Rose said. "We are in the most critical position."

Manatees were listed as endangered for years by the federal government, but in 2017 their numbers appeared to have rebounded enough—officials say there are between 7,000 and 8,000 animals in Florida—that their status was downgraded to threatened.

Several Florida politicians, including Republican U.S. Representative Vern Buchanan, have been pushing to restore the endangered status, which brings more attention and resources to them.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Florida, Manatees, Starving, Feeding Program
A sign asks people to please watch out for manatees on the Homosassa River on October 5, 2021 in Homosassa, Florida. Local projects including those of the Homosassa River Restoration Project are helping clean up the waterways as well as planting seagrass in the area to restore the natural habitat for manatees and provide a feeding ground for the mammals, following a record year in manatee deaths in Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images