Manatees, also called “sea cows”, have been the victims of farm runoff. They have starved to death by the hundreds along Florida’s east coast because algae blooms fed by nitrogen-rich fertilizer runoff are proliferating on the ocean surface and blocking sunlight from reaching seagrass below. Seagrass is the primary source of food for manatees in the winter. As seagrass dies off, so do the manatees.
Over 1,000 manatees have been found dead so far this year. It is estimated that fewer than 8,000 remain in Florida waters. Efforts are underway to restore coastal seagrass in the region as well as clams and oysters, which filter pollutants from water. Unless the water is cleared up, it will be difficult to regrow the seagrass. But the current situation is that manatees are so short on food that they are eating seagrass roots, killing the plants and thwarting efforts to help seagrass recovery.
Given this dire situation, the federal governmental has approved a program of feeding manatees. The starving animals will be fed by hand in Florida, which is a rare wildlife intervention. Conservation agencies tend to favor leaving wild animals to their own foraging and hunting so that they don’t become dependent on human handouts.
During the trial phase of the program, wildlife experts are likely to feed the animals romaine lettuce and cabbage, which is what manatees in captivity eat. The hope is to give the animals enough additional food for them to get through the winter. The trial feeding will begin on private property. It remains illegal for the public to feed manatees.
Florida to feed starving manatees in rare conservation move
Photo, posted February 21, 2008, courtesy of Keith Ramos/USFWS via Flickr.
Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio.