Manatee feeding program ready as winter tests survival

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St. PETERSBURG, Florida (AP) – As winter approaches Florida, an experimental feeding plan could save many manatees from starvation -…

St. PETERSBURG, Florida (AP) – As winter approaches in Florida, an experimental feeding scheme could save many manatees from starvation – but they will still face the long-term threat of man-made water pollution choking their food supply, officials said. Wildlife Wednesday.

Slow-moving marine mammals will soon begin congregating at warm-water sites like power plants as ocean temperatures cool, and there may not be enough seagrass to sustain them, officials said to the state’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest electric utility, is allocating $700,000 for a “temporary field response station” to feed manatees at its plant in Cape Canaveral on the east coast. The money is also earmarked for the rescue and rehabilitation of distressed manatees, the company said in a press release.

The program has not been tried before.

“The eyes of the world are on this,” said Wildlife Commission Chairman Rodney Barretto. “We have to do it right.”

Officials stress that people should not be feeding marine mammals indiscriminately. They say doing so is legal and leads to an unhealthy association between animals and food sources.

The pilot feeding program is intended as a temporary hiatus to prevent further manatee deaths as the state spends millions of dollars restoring seagrass beds in areas such as the Indian River Lagoon, a critical winter habitat.

There are between 7,000 and 8,000 manatees — also known as dugongs — in Florida, according to state estimates. They are a close relative of elephants and can live up to 65 years, but they reproduce slowly.

More than 1,000 manatees have died in Florida waters so far in 2021, a record number in one year. Some are killed by boat strikes and many are scarred by those collisions, but what is even more worrying is that many are starving because polluted waters kill the seaweed on which they depend.

The issue facing wildlife officials in the long run is how to stop fertilizer-laden runoff from sugar plantations and other agricultural operations, as well as rainwater and sewage flows from cities into bays and estuaries that breed harmful organisms such as blue-green algae. Many experts say the rising water and air temperatures caused by climate change are making the problem worse.

“We all know the primary problem is water quality,” said Larry Williams, Florida Superintendent of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, adding that other marine creatures will soon suffer as well. “They retract too, just like manatees.”

Mike Sully, a member of the Florida Wildlife Commission and an executive at parent company NextEra Energy Inc. The manatee death crisis is “really just a symptom” of the larger pollution problem.

“We also have to focus on treating water quality,” Sol said.

Governor Ron DeSantis last month announced $481 million in grants to improve water quality across the state. Of this amount, $53 million is allocated to wastewater treatment in the Indian River Lagoon area.

Continuous efforts must be made to restore manatee-friendly seagrass beds and clean up the polluted waters that are causing the problem, Barreto, president of the Florida Wildlife Commission, said.

“This isn’t about taking a picture,” Barreto said. “We want to make sure the herd survives.”

Copyright © 2021 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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