A record number of manatees are dying in Florida, forcing officials to take “unprecedented” action to slow the rate of deaths.
Florida reported 1,017 deaths this year, about 15 per cent of the state's total manatee population. That number far surpasses the 637 recorded in 2020 and is well above the previous record of 830 set in 2013.
Manatees have long struggled to coexist with humans.
State officials and environmental groups say polluted water run-off from agriculture, sewage and other man-made developments has caused algae blooms in estuaries, choking off the seagrass upon which manatees rely.
Climate change is worsening the problem.
“Having lost hundreds of manatees to starvation — that's never happened before,” said Pat Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club.
The emergency has forced officials to take drastic measures.
The US Wildlife Conservation Commission confirmed that federal officials will conduct a feeding trial to curb the die-off, Reuters first reported. The move is highly unusual in conservation as the animals could become dependent on humans for food.
“The idea behind this experimental supplemental feeding … is that you can give them just enough more food that they can get them through this winter time. The longer this is delayed, the less likely it can be successful,” said Mr Rose.
The trial would involve lettuce, cabbage and other greens delivered in a controlled manner, Mr Rose said.
Mr Rose warned against civilians feeding the manatees, saying that doing so remains illegal.
Authorities are expecting another bad year for manatees as they gather in Florida's warm waters for the winter.
Sea & Shoreline, an aquatics restoration firm, announced plans to harvest thousands of kilograms of seagrass to help feed the manatees.
The beloved sea mammals eat about 10-15 per cent of their body weight (up to 68kg) in seagrass daily, the firm said.
“Our seagrass collection efforts will help feed the rescued manatees and transition them better into the wild where they will need to forage for seagrass,” said Carter Henne, president of Sea & Shoreline.
Manatees were classified as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act in 1967, but were downgraded to “threatened” in 2017. Officials estimate there are between 7,000 and 8,000 manatees in Florida.
Agencies contributed to this report