the Florida manatee, which is the closest relative to the elephant, first appeared in the fossil record around 50 million years ago. (photo by yours truly Jenna)
The Florida manatee is considered to be one of Florida’s most symbolic marine mammals in the state of Florida. As the sub-species of the West Indian Manatee, this species can be found in both saltwater and freshwater habitats throughout Florida and other coastal regions of the Gulf of Mexico (Reeves). First appearing in the fossil record about 50 million years ago, manatees first appeared in the shallow bays and rivers of Florida around 15 million years ago (FWCC). They are also an instead favorite of scuba divers and kayakers who enjoy touring Florida’s wildlife parks for, they have been known to be very curious about the approaching people. Despite their popularity, manatees are one of the most endangered marine mammals in North America due to fishery conflict (better known as fishing entanglement), habitat loss and boat collisions. Of all These three causes, habitat loss in coastal areas has done a huge impact on manatees, because it has done a lot of damage to the the marine vegetation, and sea grass beds that they depend on. As a tragic result, chemical pollution that is produced from these newly developed coastal areas that travel into manatee habitats has now impaired their immune system; thus, putting them at risk for life threating infections (Bagheera). In fact, there are believe to be no more than 3,000
manatees remaining in US water. As a marine mammal species, they are legally protected by US national law under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which prohibits any killing, capture, or inhumane harassment of these gentle giants for any purpose (SeaWorld).
Many manatees often fall victim to boat collisions.The first situation behind why manatees are endangered is due to boat collisions.
In 2010, a total of 83 manatees were killed by boat collisions throughout the state of Florida (FFWCC). This is because manatees have to go up to the surface in order to breathe air once every 10-15 minutes or else, they may drown. Another reason why boat collisions kill manatees is because they are slow moving animals. When a boat approaches, a manatee may have very little, or no time to escape the passing watercraft; thus, making it very vulnerable to the boat’s hull or propeller as it moves through shallow water (Rao, and Kimerly). In many cases, most manatees die from their injuries associated with these brutal collisions. For the very few animals who do survive these incidents, the scar patterns end up becoming the main method off identifying individual manatees when conducting a survey on them. In a 12-year-old study, researchers concluded that manatees continued to travel to the same feeding or breeding areas regardless, of the number of boats that were present in these areas. However, the use of sanctuaries by the animals did increase for, these areas provide a safe haven for them when it comes to feeding and reproduction purposes (Rao, and Kimerly).
Entanglement can cause permanent injury to manatees and other wildlife.
The second situation behind the endangerment of the Florida manatee is entanglement in fishing gear. Just like dolphins and sea turtles, manatees can easily get themselves entangled in fishing line while feeding. This is because manatees feed by grasping their upper lips and flippers on to aquatic vegetation. There hooks and fishing line get discarded after getting entangled in aquatic plants that the manatees feed on. As a result, the manatees, consequently, either swallow or get themselves entangled in fishing gear around the flippers or tail (Save the Manatee Club). Sometimes, the hooks can end up in the lips, mouth and internal organs of the animals too. Entanglement can lead to infections, long-term injuries, and even death. Manatees can also get themselves entangled by crab traps, thus, causing a huge problem for the marine mammals. The manatees find themselves entangled in ropes that connect traps to small buoys at the surface. Despite their small size, these traps contain heavier weight than hooks and fishing line, that, they can cause more server injuries. In many cases, the manatees end up drowning in the process. But for those who do survive, they have been sighted dragging the heavy dragging these traps for several miles before dying from an injury-induces infection.
During the Winter months, manatees are often seen residing near power plants and springs.
Finally, the reason why Florida manatees are considered to be endangered is because of habitat loss. As a tropical sea animal, manatees spend their entire lives in warm water that is no colder than 65 degrees (Fox). While they may spend most of their time around Florida waters, some manatees may migrate to waters off the coasts of Virginia and the Carolinas. However, development
along coastal regions of the Southeastern United States has resulted in loss of habitat area for the manatees (Fox). In one year alone, the population of coastal side towns in Florida and other Southeastern states grew to more than 1,000 people per day. To make matters worst, surveys done on manatee have shown a twenty-year increase in manatees migrating to artificial water refuges in the
winter time since there are a very few natural refuges that still exist within the state of Florida. These artificial refuges, which are located near seaside power plants, are small in comparison to natural refuges (DRC). As a result, manatee colonies overcrowd these tiny refuges that, it has been known to increase the spread of disease among the animals, and effect red tide locations. Because artificial refuges are run by power plants, these businesses are at risk of shutting down permanently. If these power plants were to shut down, then, the refuges they run would be to cold for the manatees to stay during the winter months, because power plants keep them warm throughout the winter months. This can result in a phenomenon called “cold-stunning”, which is a form a hypothermic reaction when manatees are exposed to cold water temperatures for a long period of time.
Zoological facilities like SeaWorld and the Lowry Park Zoo continue to rescue and rehabilitate sick, orphaned, and injured manatees in trouble each year.
Despite the threats that have caused Florida manatees to remain on the endangered species list, there has been a number of efforts to protect manatees and their habitats. In the case of the boat collision issue, the establishment of manatee sanctuaries has made it possible to reduce boat activity on manatee populations by allowing a small number of boats and tourists in critical manatee habitats, especially during holiday weekends and vacationing seasons (Rao, and Kimerly) . At the same time, observation by biologists has increased to monitor all manatee/boat interactions in hopes to prevent future collisions. To prevent entanglement in manatees, fishermen should avoid fishing in areas were manatees and other marine mammals are known to feed, breed, and raise their young. They should also not dispose any fishing gear in the water, because then, manatees, and other marine animals can easily get entangled in them (NOAA). Even a small amount of gear can lead to injury or death in a manatee. Finally, in the case of habitat destruction, there has been some effort to establish manatees sanctuaries and prevent further development in newly declared wild places. This does include some coastal areas that are declared as a sanctuary (Save the Manatee Club). In response to the high mortality rate in manatees, zoological parks in Florida that are authorized by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to rescue troubled wildlife have put in a series of efforts to rescue and rehabilitate sick, orphaned,and injured manatees. In one year alone, one marine life facility rescued a total of 13 manatees, while six were released back into the wild (SeaWorld). With conservation efforts continuing, there is hope that the Florida manatee will be saved from extinction.