By Nancy Richie
Love them or hate them, the Florida Manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris), a subspecies of the West Indian Manatee, is in our waters and has been for millions of years. Love them? Most people do love them and seek them out to view for their unique characteristics – large, gray, sausage-shaped marine mammals with big flippers and a paddle for a tail, slowly moving and grazing through the Florida waters. Hate them? Hate is a strong feeling, but it mostly has been expressed when a slow speed, idle speed or no entry manatee protection zones are established for boating by the state of Florida. Millions of years? Yes, evidence in museums display forty-five-million-year-old animal fossils from the manatee family that were found in Florida. Florida’s native Indians created ceremonial pipes in the form of manatees and manatee bones have been found at refuse sites and in Indian mounds. Writers and explorers from the early nineteenth century commented that West Indian Manatees were “found in large numbers” and were “remarkably abundant”. Pioneers documented killing manatees for meat, oil and hides, but by 1893, Florida passed protection laws that made it illegal to hunt for manatees, even though poaching of these large animals continued throughout the Great Depression and World War II because of a shortage of meat.
As Florida developed and became more populated, of course, more coastal construction and boats became part of the landscape. It is not hard to comprehend why Florida has more boats than any other state. The first report of manatee deaths by boat collision was in 1943. Building on the first protective laws of no hunting, in the early 1980s, speed zones and no entry zones were established by Florida via the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act (Chapter 370.12(2), Florida Statues.) This Act declared Florida to be a refuge or sanctuary for the manatee and declared it as “Florida’s state marine mammal.” This Act authorized the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to adopt rules that regulate speed and operation of motor vessels to protect manatees from death due to collision and from harassment. FWC can also designate habitat, such as sea grass beds, as safe havens for manatees to rest, feed, reproduce, give birth and nurse their young while undisturbed by human activity.
The Florida Manatee is also listed under the 1973 federal Endangered Species Act. This Act provides the mechanism to conserve ecosystems and habitat that support the manatee and further increase protection by making it illegal to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill capture or collect. If you see a manatee or it’s “footprint” on the water surface, a vessel should avoid its path; turn off engine and drift to enjoy the manatee, staying 50 feet from the animal. Any closer is harassment. Manatees do not need to be fed or watered. Being vegetarian, they munch sea grasses and get fresh water from the food they eat. It may be amusing to offer a hose to a manatee for a drink of fresh water, but it does change their natural behavior and puts them in harm’s way of boats and their props.
Why all this protection and what is the economic impact of protecting manatees? $1.50 from every registered vessel in the State is transferred to Save the Manatee Trust Fund and is used for specific purposes, such as population census, research and education. Some say this fee and posting the speed zones, maintenance and enforcement of the zones is over the top. But these protected zones have helped stabilize the population numbers and have lowered the number of boat collisions resulting in death. Another benefit that is financially important to Florida is the protected manatee habitats also guarantee a healthy marine habitat for other economically important species such as commercial fish, game fish, crustaceans, sea turtles and other animals. They all depend on sea grasses and good water quality conditions to flourish.
Manatees are unique animals; some would say an irreplaceable national treasure as they are a one of a kind species in North America. It is up to residents and visitors of Florida to ensure that this species and its diverse natural habitat are around for many generations to come. Marco Island has a healthy year round population of manatees. Let’s love them, but not to death.
Please report any sightings of harassment (feeding, touching, circling with vessel), distressed, injured or dead manatees by calling the FWC Wildlife Alert number at 1-888-404-FWCC (3922). For more information, stickers or boat banners, please contact Nancy Richie, Environmental Specialist, City of Marco Island at 239-389-5003 or [email protected]