Florida's Pilot Program to Feed Starving Manatees Ready, Utility Puts in $700K to Help

Florida wildlife officials announced the details Wednesday of a new, first of its kind feeding plan for manatees in the state's waters to slow this year's record death and starvation rates for the animals, and the electric company whose facility will be the home of the program is giving $700,000 to the program.

The program will take place at Florida Power and Light's Cape Canaveral plant, where the warm water produced by the plant attracts groups of the animals as the ocean cools in the winter. The manatees will be fed by humans, although the officials reiterated that it is still illegal for civilians to feed wild animals in Florida.

Water pollution from farms and sewage in the state breeds harmful organisms like blue-green algae, which kills or stifles the growth of underwater seagrass, the main source of food for the manatees.

Over 1,000 manatees have died in the state this year which is a record for the state, and officials said about 7,000-8,000 manatees are left in the oceans around the state.

The program is a temporary measure as the state spends millions to improve the water quality in other common seagrass growth areas like the Indian River Lagoon, a refuge for manatees in the winter.

Last month, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced $481 million for grants to improve water quality, with about $53 million being used in the Indian River Lagoon region, according to the Associated Press.

The plan is a drastic step taken by what Executive Director of the Save the Manatee Club Patrick Rose told the AP last week is necessary because the record number of deaths constitutes an emergency that requires unprecedented action.

Florida, Manatees, Starving, Feeding Program
On Wednesday, state wildlife officials say a test feeding plan will save many threatened manatees from starvation as winter approaches Florida, but they say the manatees will still face the threat of manmade water pollution stifling their food supply. Above, manatees crowd together near the warm-water outflows from Florida Power & Light's plant in Riviera Beach, Florida, on February 5, 2021. Greg Lovett/The Palm Beach Post via AP File

Florida Power & Light, the state's largest electric utility, is putting up $700,000 for a "temporary field response station" to feed the manatees. The money is also for rescue and rehabilitation of distressed manatees, the company said in a news release.

"The eyes of the world are on this," said wildlife commission chair Rodney Barreto. "We've got to get it right."

Manatees are close relatives of elephants and can live up to 65 years, but they reproduce slowly.

Some are killed by boat strikes and many more scarred by those collisions, but what is most concerning is that so many starve to death because polluted water kills the seagrass upon which they depend.

"We all know the underlying problem is water quality," said Larry Williams, Florida state supervisor with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, adding that other marine creatures will soon suffer as well. "They are declining too, just like the manatees are."

Florida wildlife commission member Mike Sole, who is an executive with FPL's parent company NextEra Energy Inc., also said the manatee death crisis is "really just a symptom" of the greater pollution problem.

"We've got to also focus on the cure of water quality," Sole said.

Barreto, the Florida wildlife commission chairman, said there must be a sustained effort to restore the manatee-friendly seagrass beds and clean up the polluted water causing the problem.

"This is not about a photo op," Barreto said. "We want to make sure the herd survives."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Florida, Manatees, Starving, Feeding Program
State officials announced a program December 15, 2021, to feed manatees amid record starvation rates for the animals as water pollution kills or stifles the growth of seagrass around the state, which is the manatee's main food source. Above, a manatee swims among seagrass in the Homosassa River on October 05, 2021, in Homosassa, Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images