St. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Normally giving food to wild animals 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.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Florida state officials are proposing to present a modest proposal for feeding marine mammals at one Florida site. Patrick Rose, Save The Manatee Club Executive Director, stated that this is something not normally done with wild animals. However, the emergency situation calls for it to be taken into consideration.
Jimmy Buffet (flautographer from Florida) and Bob Graham, former U.S. senator and governor of South Carolina, founded the club.
“It’s the entire ecosystem that is affected by this and will be affected for a decade to come,” Rose said in an interview Tuesday. “This is a necessary stopgap measure. It is a problem created by man and man is going to have to solve it.”
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. An official announcement will be made later in the week.
The emerging plan would involve feeding manatees at a Florida Power & Light plant in Cape Canaveral, along the Indian River Lagoon on the east coast where manatees congregate in cold winter months because of the warm water discharge from the plant. Rose stated that it would include lettuce, cabbage, or other greens, delivered via conveyor belt.
It would be illegal for someone to just start throwing lettuce in a Florida bay.
“Under no circumstances do we want people feeding manatees. It’s illegal, and remains so,” Rose said.
Since their infancy, manatees have struggled with human beings. The hundreds of slow-moving manatees are often struck by boats each year. This has resulted in no-wake zones for Florida, with severe penalties for violators. The state has reported that 1,017 manatees died due to starvation as of Nov. 19 according to official figures.
Another bad year can be expected as winter draws near, even in Florida.
Runoff from urban areas, farms and sewage has led to this problem. This promotes the growth of harmful organisms and blue-green algae. This blocks sunlight that seagrass needs, thereby reducing manatees’ main source of food. It is also possible to see an increase in the severity of algal blooms due to climate change.
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. In addition to protecting animals, the algae blooms can also result in economic losses to boat captains and sightseeing tour operators who visit Florida every year to enjoy the opportunity to see them.
“Literally, saving manatees is part of saving the ecosystem. This will ensure that manatees 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. Vern Buchanan is a Republican U.S. Congressman who has been advocating for the restoration of endangered status. It brings attention to these animals and more resources.