MELBOURNE, Fla. - Manatees are dying off in record numbers due to starvation, but scientists say they’re working on a plan to save those that have survived.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) will provide supplemental food to malnourished manatees in the Indian River Lagoon on Florida's east coast.
"It’s completely unprecedented because it should have never come to the fact that we have starving manatees because there was way more than enough food resources for the number of manatees that there were," said Dr. Patrick Rose, the executive director of the Save the Manatees Club.
So far this year, FWC has recorded 1,017 manatee deaths. It's the highest number ever recorded and a major jump from the 498 manatee deaths recorded in 2020.
The depleted food supply is most apparent in the Indian River Lagoon, which is where harmful algae blooms have killed at least 95% of the seagrass.
"Those algae blooms are created because there’s excess nutrients in the water that has come from human waste, whether it’s from leaking septic tanks or untreated wastewater or even run off from fertilizers," Rose said.
Dr. Rose, an aquatic biologist, explains that the human-created problem is now getting a human solution.
"[FWC and FWS] are likely going to stick with the kind of diet the manatees get in captivity, so romaine lettuce, probably some cabbage, potentially some other greens. They are going to want to be able to put it in an area and be able to contain it so they can see how much the manatees are eating, which ones are eating, how well they’re doing with it," Rose said.
As Dr. Rose explains, people should still never feed manatees.
As for the program, it’s set to get underway within the next two weeks on a limited, experimental basis.
"We’re not talking about this as a long-term thing that would be repeated year after year. We hope there’s enough we can do collectively with all the partners to just begin the restoration process," Rose said.