The manatee feeding will be experimental and limited, officials said, and will likely provide leafy greens such as cabbage and lettuce. That’s similar to what manatees are given to eat when taken into captivity for rehabilitation, said Patrick Rose, the executive director of Save the Manatee Club, a nonprofit group that pushed for the supplemental feeding.
“We hope they will take it,” Mr. Rose said. “There’s no guarantee.”
The effort comes with risks. Boat strikes also kill manatees, so further habituating them to vessels or people could be deadly. The feeding program is expected to include measures to prevent that from happening, and to clean up any uneaten produce so that it does not fuel further algal growth.
Wildlife officials urged the public to refrain from feeding manatees. To help the animals, they said, locals should take measures to improve water quality, such as avoiding fertilizer and pesticides on their lawns, and switching from septic systems to a municipal sewer, or upgrading septic systems if that is not possible.
Research focused on other species indicates that wildlife feeding, while well intentioned, can disrupt migration patterns, spread disease and lead to a cascade of other unintended consequences. Short-term benefits can evaporate over time. A study on mule deer, commissioned by Utah wildlife officials after the animals suffered during an extreme winter, found increased survival and better reproduction after two years in a group of deer that received food, but no difference after five, said Terry Messmer, a professor at Utah State University who helped lead the research. The deer that received food lingered longer in their winter range and suffered a surprising number of vehicle collisions.
But humans are already drastically altering the ecosystems that animals depend on. The important thing, Dr. Messmer said, is to proceed with caution and address the root problem.
“This is a teachable moment,” he said of the manatees. “It’s unfortunate that we’re having too many of these teachable moments in our country and the world.”
Johnny Diaz contributed reporting.