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Science

Wildlife officials throw 3,000 pounds of lettuce a day into the sea to save starving manatees

manatees florida wildlife
Photo by geoff trodd on Unsplash

Manatees, aka "sea cows," are starving to death in Florida so officials are staging an intervention.

Manatees are one of Earth's more oddly beloved creatures. They're cute in a "so ugly they're cute" kind of way, and their bulbous, slowly meandering bodies have earned them the nickname "sea cows." They are a migratory species, and in the U.S. they congregate mainly in the waters of Florida.

Sadly, manatees are also dying at an alarming rate after only being taken off the endangered species list in 2017. During the first nine months of 2021, nearly 10% of Florida's manatee population died—more than double the five-year average. Many of those deaths were due to water quality issues impacting the growth of seagrass, one of the manatee's primary food sources.

Boat strikes, habitat loss and toxic algae blooms also threaten the species, but far too many are dying of simple starvation. According to WUSF, at least 58% of the seagrass in the northern Indian River Lagoon has been lost since 2009, and at least 96% of the Banana River's seagrass is gone. Both river habitats have long served as winter homes for manatees.


To help stave off starvation, officials with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) have staged a salad intervention of sorts. CNN reports that around 350 manatees are currently coming to a temporary field response station in Cape Canaveral to get their daily servings of romaine and butter lettuce. Since the feeding program started, it has served between 25 and 800 manatees a day.

The sea cows salad bar serves up 3,000 pounds of lettuce a day, and officials say it's helping.

"At this point in time, we have been successful. Manatees are eating the romaine," Ron Mezich of the FWC told CNN. "We are exposing [a] large amount of animals to this food source and we are making a difference." The lettuce has nutrients and digestible carbohydrates the sea cows need, he said.

The program has been funded largely through donations from the public and is slated to continue through March.

Hopefully, the FWC will see improvement in the manatee mortality numbers as a result of its efforts. As of February 11, there have already been 261 manatee deaths in the state, though most are still awaiting necropsies to determine the cause of death.

Everyone can take part in helping these gentle giants have a healthy future by following guidance for wise use of waterways, supporting legislation for wildlife protection, reducing and cleaning up pollution along beaches and waterways and encouraging leaders to take meaningful action on climate change.

Don't try to throw your own salad in the ocean to feed the manatees, though. Officials recommend leaving the lettuce to experts.

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