Federal wildlife officials are taking "unprecedented" action to slow Florida's record manatee die-off: They're going to feed the threatened species in a limited trial to help them survive the winter months.
A record 1,017 manatees have died in Florida waters this year, according to data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, prompting the creation of a joint team of state and federal wildlife officials last month to streamline response and recovery efforts.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday confirmed the feeding plan to the USA TODAY Network. A formal announcement is expected later this week.
"For manatees, it's absolutely unprecedented," said Pat Rose, an aquatic biologist and executive director of the Save the Manatee Club. "This has never been considered before."
In October, the USA TODAY Network first reported on a potential plan in the works to feed starving manatees. Notes from an Aug. 2 meeting between top environment officials, obtained by TCPalm from the state, highlighted biologists' thinking and underscored the desperate effort to find temporary solutions to the ongoing die-off.
Biologists blame the die-off on decades of seagrass loss in the Indian River Lagoon, a result of human-caused pollution. Solutions, including restoring water quality and reducing algal blooms, are too far off to help the manatees now.
Adult manatees need 100-200 pounds of seagrass per day to survive.
One "serious concern" experts expressed was about how their decision to feed wildlife could influence the public, records show. It's illegal to feed manatees: A conviction could bring a $500 state fine and/or up to 60 days in prison. Violating federal species protection laws is punishable by fines up to $100,000 and/or a year in prison.
'Starved to death': Florida surpasses grim milestone of 1,000 manatee deaths in 2021
While quick to applaud the decision to feed manatees, Save the Manatee Club was equally expeditious in reminding the general public to avoid giving food to the animals.
"Please remember that it remains illegal for individuals without proper permits to feed wild manatees," the nonprofit posted on Twitter.
The decision to experiment with feeding manatees will help stop another severe die-off due to starvation, like last winter, Rose said.
Over 650 carcasses were documented on the Atlantic Coast through Nov. 5, with roughly 85% of them in the first four months of this year, according to Martine deWit, the state veterinarian who leads the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute's necropsy lab in St. Petersburg.
Manatees have fared worst along the east coast, where one-fifth of the population likely was lost this year. Brevard County's stretch of the Indian River Lagoon was the deadliest spot, with at least 332 deaths through Nov. 19, data show.
The lagoon has lost 58% of its seagrass coverage since 2009, or more than 46,000 acres. Most areas face 90% less grass than years past.
"We're gearing up for another bad winter, and this decision will not replace the food that they need," Rose said. "Rather, it's going to be monitored and treated more as an experiment."
Max Chesnes is a TCPalm environment reporter focusing on issues facing the Indian River Lagoon, St. Lucie River and Lake Okeechobee. You can keep up with Max on Twitter @MaxChesnes, email him at email@example.com and give him a call at 772-978-2224.
This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: Florida manatees: Wildlife officials OK 'unprecedented' feeding plan