By Dr. Becker
In Florida, manatees, the gentle herbivorous cows of the sea, have been dwindling in numbers for decades, often falling victim to boat propellers and other manmade threats. In the 1960s, only several hundred manatees remained, and researchers estimated just over 1,200 manatees lived in Florida waters as of 1991.
They were listed as a federal endangered species in 1966, but, fortunately, their numbers have been steadily growing.1 An aerial survey released by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) estimated 6,620 manatees now live in Florida, up from 6,250 in 2016 and 6,063 in 2015.2 That’s the good news.
The bad news is that in March 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that West Indian manatees would be downgraded from endangered to threatened according to the Endangered Species Act.3
While this might sound like cause for celebration, some, including the nonprofit Save the Manatee Club and Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.), have criticized the move, as it removes protections that have been helping to keep the species safe. Buchanan called the manatee’s removal from the endangered list “hugely disappointing.”4
“The decision to weaken protections under the Endangered Species Act threatens the survival of the manatee, one of Florida’s most beloved animals,” he said. “It needs to be reversed.”5
Record-High Numbers of Manatees Are Being Killed by Boat Strikes
In a press release opposing the FWS final rule to downgrade the status of the West Indian manatee from endangered to threatened, the Save the Manatee Club said the decision did not adequately consider data showing manatees are still suffering losses from habitat pollution and dependence on artificial warm water sources.6 They also highlighted “record deaths from watercraft strikes” and noted:7
“FWS decided to prematurely downlist manatees without a proven viable plan for reducing record-high watercraft-related manatee deaths and without establishing a long-term plan for the anticipated loss of artificial winter warm water habitat on which more than 60 [percent] of the Florida manatee population depends.”
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, which also opposes the downgrade, at least 668 manatees died from collisions with boats in Florida from 2008 to 2014.8
“Despite this both the Service and Army Corps of Engineers continue to authorize construction of thousands of projects that facilitate increased watercraft access to Florida waters,” the Center noted, continuing:9
“ … [T]he threats that landed the manatee on the endangered species list — principally boat strikes and habitat loss — persist today at virtually the same rates.
Indeed manatee mortality from all sources has increased since 1973, and threats restrict the animals’ ability to truly recover from being threatened with extinction.”
Recreational Boaters, Tour Operators in Favor of Manatee Downgrade
The FWS review of manatee status came after a petition from Save Crystal River Inc., which represents about recreational boaters, tour operators and dive shop and hotel owners. The petition asked for the manatees to be reclassified.
The animals like to congregate in the river, which is warmed by natural springs. The FWS designated the entire river a manatee refuge, imposes speed restrictions on powerboats and, during the winter months, it sets aside special manatee sanctuaries where boats are prohibited.
If the manatees are no longer listed as endangered, they’re potentially on their way to receiving less protections, which means the residents and tourists would have more use of the river but likely at the manatees’ expense.
For now, FWS said that existing federal protections for manatees will remain unchanged even after they’re removed from the endangered list.10 The Center for Biological Diversity estimates that up to 90 manatees are killed every year in Florida because of boat strikes.11
Controversial Swim-With-Manatee Tours Remain
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission states they continue to protect and conserve manatees and their habitat, but they’re still allowing controversial swim-with-manatee tour groups to operate.
The Save the Manatee Club considers swimming with these animals, especially touching or surrounding them to get a closer look, a form of harassment that puts manatees at serious risk.
For starters, human activity in the water could cause the manatees to leave the warm-water area or expend too much energy trying to swim away from the interactions. Giving the animals food or water also disturbs their natural behaviors and may encourage the animals to approach unsafe areas.
The swim-with-manatee tours could even cause a mother and calf to become separate, putting the baby, who remains dependent on its mother for up to two years, at serious risk.
Further, the frequent interactions with humans may cause manatees to become tame, another behavioral change that could ultimately put them in harm’s way.
Those in favor of swimming with wild manatees say the tours help to increase awareness and appreciation for the species, but you can do the same thing by observing the animals from a safe and respectful distance.
If you’d love to see manatees in the wild, the Save the Manatee Club offers the following tips to do so without harming these majestic creatures:12
- Look, but don’t touch. Avoid excess noise and splashing.
- Practice “passive observation” and observe manatees from above water and at a distance.
- Resist the urge to feed manatees or give them water.
- Stash your trash. Discard monofilament line, hooks and other trash properly.
- Do not enter designated manatee sanctuaries for any reason.