WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Manatee populations throughout the Sunshine State are at risk of dying and researchers say lack of food is to blame.
"We had over 1,000 manatees statewide die this calendar year," said Dr. Thomas Easton, assistant executive director for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The record-setting number has sparked a massive response effort from state and federal agencies including the FWC, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as Florida Power & Light.
"FPL has always heavily invested in our community, and we believe investing in the manatee population is crucial to everything we do in the state," said Kate McGregor, vice president of environmental services.
The power company has allocated more than $700,000 to support new response initiatives that are already underway here along the Atlantic coastline.
"Our main effort is focused on identifying those animals and doing health assessments on them and bringing them into rehabilitation as needed," said Easton.
The situation is so critical Easton said his agency is prepared to do something it's never done before — launch an experimental feeding program.
"We have a rigorous well thought out protocol to feed manatees, basically lettuce, in a way that hydrates them, and there's a lot of nutrition for them as well," he said.
The goal is to help minimize the number of deaths; however, the response effort does come with a few risks.
"We don't want manatees associating boats with food because we're actually trying to separate boats from manatees. Boat strikes historically have been a very large mortality issue for manatees," Easton said. "We also don't want to inadvertently change their migration patterns and or their individual behavior, so we have a rigorous protocol put in place to try to minimize those negative impacts."
If the program is launched, it's expected to last until the end of March and, if needed, will be implemented next year.