Starving sea cows should be saved with heads of cabbage

09 December, 2021

More than a thousand sea cows have died in Florida this year, many of them starving to death due to environmental degradation. Now a previously completely unthinkable measure is being considered – feeding the wild mammals with cabbage and lettuce in order for them to survive the winter.

Florida’s sea cows, or manatees as they are called, have over the years become celebrities. They have been designated the U.S. state’s official marine mammal, immortalized on thousands of custom-made license plates, and special rules force boats to slow down so they don’t collide with the slow-swimming animals.

This year, the headlines have been gloomier. The Manatees rely on seaweed to survive – and have been hit hard by pollution in the water that has caused algal blooms.

manatees
Manatees warm themselves in the water outside a power plant in Florida. Photograph: Greg Lovett/The Palm Beach Post/AP/TT

Algal bloom

Runoff from farms, urban areas and wastewater has fostered the growth of blue-green algae and other harmful organisms, which suffocate the light the seaweed needs to survive. Algal blooms are also exacerbated by climate change.

The problem is particularly acute in the northern parts of the Indian River lagoon where 96 percent of 77,000 hectares of seaweed have disappeared.

Over a thousand sea cows — more than 10 percent of Florida’s manat population — have died this year. It is a record note that is explained by the fact that many animals have starved to death. In the past, the main threats to Florida’s sea cows have been collisions with boats, toxic algae and cold.

“They have a very hard time finding food. The majority are pretty malnourished,” Patrick Rose, director of the organization Save the Manatee Club, told The Washington Post.

Later this week, the federal fisheries and wildlife agency FWS, along with state agencies, is expected to unfold a measure that has previously been seen as unthinkable. The beloved manatees are to be fed on a trial basis, something that is not usually done with wild animals but is now seen as necessary for them to survive the winter, according to Rose.

Lettuce and cabbage

The plan includes feeding sea cows that during cold months gather in the warm water that flows out of a power plant in Cape Canaveral. The experiment involves lettuce, cabbage and other vegetables to be delivered in a “controlled” manner via a conveyor belt.

“The question is how we’re going to make sure they make it through the winter,” Rose says.

“There is not enough food near the power plant. So they are faced with the miserable choice of staying warm and forgoing food or leaving to try to find it and basically dying of cold.

Sea cows, or siren animals as they are also called, are reminiscent of a seal but are most closely related to the elephant.

Sea cows are mammals that are fully adapted for a life in water, where they feed mainly on seaweed. All sea cows are endangered.

The sea cows are divided into manatees and dugongs. The manatees are found off the coast of West Africa (Senegalmanate), in the Amazon River (Amazonmanat) and around the West Indies, eastern Mexico and up towards Florida (lamantin). The dugout, which is found in only one species, lives in coastal areas around the Indian Ocean and parts of the western Pacific Ocean .

Source: World Wide Fund for Nature

Text: Sofia Eriksson/TT
Photo: John Raoux/AP/TT, Greg Lovett/The Palm Beach Post/AP/TT

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