At-Risk Manatees Eat Lettuce for the First Time

Pollution is wiping out usual food sources in Florida
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jan 22, 2022 12:33 PM CST
Updated Jan 22, 2022 12:45 PM CST
At-Risk Manatees Eat Lettuce for the First Time
A manatee comes up for a breath at the Florida Power and Light Manatee Lagoon in Riviera Beach, Fla., on Wednesday. The warm water discharged attracts the manatees.   (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)

(Newser) – Manatees at risk of starvation because native seagrass is dying due to water pollution have for the first time started eating lettuce under an experimental feeding program, Florida wildlife officials said Friday. The test facility on the east coast's Indian River Lagoon had its first takers of romaine lettuce Thursday, leading more manatees to join in, said Ron Mezich, chief of the effort's provisioning branch at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "We think it's significant," Mezich said in a remote news conference, the AP reports. "When the animals are there, we will continue to offer food and hope they take advantage of that."

The program is adding cabbage and a second type of lettuce to entice the manatees, also known as sea cows. All are common foods given to manatees at rehabilitation facilities. The unprecedented feeding program is a state and federal response to last year's record number of 1,101 documented manatee deaths. Many manatees are starving to death because pollution from agricultural, urban, and other sources has triggered algae blooms that have decimated seagrass beds on which they depend—especially in winter. About 25 to 35 manatees were seen Friday near the feeding site at a Florida Power & Light plant that discharges warm water that attracts them when water temperatures drop. Several hundred were spotted from the air nearby, said Tom Reinert, south regional director for the FWC.

There are no immediate plans to expand the feeding program beyond Brevard County, officials said. It remains illegal for people to feed wild manatees on their own. "This is a pilot program and we're trying to learn as much as we can," Reinert said. But he added that seagrass restoration and a reduction in water pollution are the long-term answers to the starvation problem. "We need a healthy lagoon to support the seagrass," he said. "We can't feed all of them." There are about 7,520 wild manatees in Florida waters, according to state statistics. They've rebounded enough to be listed as a threatened species rather than endangered, though a push is on to restore the endangered tag, given the starvations.

(Read more manatees stories.)

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