Florida manatees will be fed to prevent starvation

In captivity, manatees are fed a diet of salad, cabbage and other vegetables. PHOTO: AFP

MIAMI (AFP) - Florida's manatees - which are increasingly facing starvation, largely as a result of pollution - are going to be fed directly by wildlife officials, in what they called an "unprecedented" step to prevent further die-off.

The pilot programme will start at Indian River Lagoon, on the Sunshine State's east coast south-east of Orlando, the federal and state authorities announced on Wednesday (Dec 8).

Many manatees migrate to this area in winter, to bask in the warm water discharged by a nearby power plant and to graze on seagrass.

But over the last decade, heavy runoff from nearby farms and urban areas has caused algae blooms to explode, which increasingly threaten the sea mammals' main food source.

The algae blocks out sunlight, which seagrass needs to grow, while also releasing poisonous toxins.

At least 1,017 manatees have died so far in 2021, with the most deadly winter months still to come.

"This unprecedented event is worth unprecedented actions," announced Mr Thomas Eason, the deputy director of Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Under the new programme, only a small number of individuals will be authorised to feed the manatees in the Indian River Lagoon, and only if necessary, Mr Eason explained, reiterating that the general public should not do so.

In captivity, manatees are fed a diet of salad, cabbage and other vegetables.

Also known as sea cows, manatees are large animals of about 3m in length and weighing between 360kg and 540kg.

They can eat up to 10 per cent of their weight every day, so any decrease in seagrass growth can have dire consequences.

Save the Manatee, a local non-governmental organisation, praised the new programme, with executive director Patrick Rose calling it a "significant move to help prevent another severe loss of manatees due to starvation".

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