In an "unprecedented" move, the US Fish and Wildlife Service plans to feed threatened manatees following a record number of deaths in Florida waters this year. A FWS rep confirmed the plan to TCPalm on Tuesday ahead of a formal announcement Wednesday. "It is a problem created by man and man is going to have to solve it," Patrick Rose, a biologist and executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, tells NBC News. "For manatees, it's absolutely unprecedented," he adds, per TCPalm. "This has never been considered before." But never before have so many manatees died in Florida waters in a year. Some 1,017 deaths were reported as of Nov. 19, per TCPalm. That represents 15% of Florida's total population, per the Washington Post.
Adult manatees need to eat 100 to 200 pounds of seagrass each day to survive, but the Indian River Lagoon, considered one of the most biologically diverse estuaries in North America, has lost 58% of its seagrass coverage since 2009, while some areas have seen coverage reduced by 90%, TCPalm reports. To blame are toxic algae blooms, promoted by sewage and chemical runoff and intensified by climate change, which limit the light seagrass needs to grow. To help, officials plan to test-feed manatees at a Florida Power & Light plant in Cape Canaveral, along the lagoon, per NBC. They're expected to release lettuce, cabbage, and other greens in the warm waters discharged from the plant, where manatees gather in winter months.
Rose says the strategy is about getting Florida's manatees through the coming winter as "there's no reasonable amount of food available for them within the vicinity of the power plant where they go this time of year to stay warm. So they have this miserable choice between staying warm and forgoing food, or go out and try to find it and essentially die of cold stress," per the Post. But it comes with risks. For example, the experiment could delay the fall migration, influence the behavior of calves, and create competition for food, per TCPalm. Experts also fear the public will start feeding manatees, too, though the practice remains illegal without the proper permits—subject to fines and/or prison time. (Read more manatees stories.)