Manatee feeding experiment starts slowly as cold looms

Manatees crowd the warm-water outflows from Florida Power & Light’s plant Feb. 5, 2021, in Riviera Beach, Fla. An unprecedented experimental attempt to feed manatees facing starvation in Florida has started slowly, but wildlife officials are optimistic it will work as cold weather drives the marine mammals toward warmer waters.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — An unprecedented, experimental attempt to feed manatees facing starvation in Florida has started slowly, but wildlife officials expressed optimism Thursday that it will work as cold weather drives the marine mammals toward warmer waters.

A feeding station established along the state’s east coast has yet to entice wild manatees with romaine lettuce even though the animals will eat it in captivity, officials said during a news conference held remotely.

Water pollution from agricultural, urban and other sources has triggered algae blooms that have decimated seagrass beds on which manatees depend, leading to a record 1,101 manatee deaths largely from starvation in 2021. The typical five-year average is about 625 deaths.

That brought about the lettuce feeding program, part of a joint manatee death response group led by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It remains a violation of state and federal law for people to feed manatees on their own.

“We have not documented animals foraging on the lettuce,” said Ron Mezich, chief of the joint effort’s provisioning branch. “We know manatees will eat lettuce.”

During winter months, hundreds of manatees tend to congregate in warmer waters from natural springs and power plant discharges. Because this winter has been unusually mild in Florida so far, the animals have been more dispersed.

“They’re moving, but they are not being pressed by cold temperatures yet,” said Tom Reinert, south regional director for the FWC. “We expect that to happen.”

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