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Wild Manatees Are Dying, and Wildlife Officials See No Option but to Feed Them

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In a controversial move, the state of Florida and the federal government plan to feed endangered wild manatees to counter a spike in deaths caused by a dramatic loss of the sea mammals’ natural food supply.

Florida’s manatees have suffered record losses in 2021 with already more than 1,000 known deaths. As of 2016, state officials said there were about 8,800 manatees in Florida’s waters.

Malnourishment due to the loss of sea grass in the Indian River Lagoon, where many manatees winter, is considered a major cause of the record-breaking death count. The sea grass was killed off by algae blooms fueled largely by human waste and fertilizer runoff from lawns and farms. Since 2011, 90 percent of the sea grass has died off.

Federal and state wildlife officials plan to provide food, including cabbage and lettuce, to stave off more deaths. “We hope they will take it,” said Patrick Rose, the executive director of Save the Manatee Club, a nonprofit group that pushed for the supplemental feeding. “There’s no guarantee.”

Even though feeding wildlife can disrupt migration patterns, spread disease, and may cause manatees to approach boats for food—boat strikes are another major cause of manatee deaths—officials feel they don’t have a choice.

“This unprecedented event is worth unprecedented actions,” said Thomas Eason, assistant executive director of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, at a news conference on Wednesday.

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