By Natalie Strom
A large grey mass floats in the middle of a canal in Goodland. At first glance it looks like a large, misplaced rock, but upon further investigation, the “rock” is actually Florida’s state marine mammal, the manatee. This manatee, in particular, is in clear distress and has a large pink gash across its back. It has now become clear that the beautiful, slow-moving creature has been struck by a boat.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that approximately 87 manatees are killed every year due to human interference. Almost 90 percent of these fatalities are due to boating accidents. “Every year people are registering more boats in Florida,” explains Jaclyn Lopez, Staff Attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, an organization that protects the rights of endangered species through education, science policy and litigation. “There are over one million registered boaters and at least 100,000 more that aren’t even registered in Florida but boat in Florida. We are increasingly adding both the number of boaters and the number of boating accidents in our waterways, and in particular, around canals and residential areas. The more we clog up these areas with these vessels, the more we restrict the manatee’s ability to freely use that habitat.”
The injured manatee in Goodland was lucky. The injury was reported to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which upon evaluation, concluded the manatee was not in critical condition. It eventually swam away, adding another scar to its back. However, the overall condition of the West Indian manatee, which is listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), is being called into question. Currently facing a variety of threats, such as boating collisions, diminishing habitat and red tide bacteria, the manatee is in need of more protected habitat than currently exists for the species.
Kings Bay in Crystal River, Florida is a prime example of how human encroachment and boating play a part in the demise of the manatee. According to the Southwest Florida Water Management District, Kings Bay and the Crystal River are a complex network of more than 30 freshwater springs. About 90 miles north of Tampa, “it’s an excellent warm water refuge habitat for manatees, but it’s also great snorkeling because the water is so crystal clear. It’s a tremendous tourist destination, and part of the tourists come specifically to feed the manatees,” adds Lopez.
As an endangered species, the manatee is afforded rights regarding harassment. This means that feeding manatees, whether it be fresh water from a hose or lettuce by hand, is actually against the law. In fact, the ESA defines “harass” as, “an intentional or negligent act or omission which creates the likelihood of injury to wildlife by annoying it to such an extent as to significantly disrupt normal behavioral patterns which include, but are not limited to, breeding, feeding or sheltering.”
In King’s Bay, many of the local “eco-tours” offer tourists a chance to swim with the manatees. “A plain reading of the Endangered Species Act and the regulations that implement it, results in an understanding that putting people in the water with manatees with the intention that they interact with manatees, violates the ESA,” explains Lopez. However, “it isn’t enforced that way. There have been concessions because the manatee industry is such a tremendous money maker for the county that the federal agencies tolerate these businesses that take people there to interact with the species.”
Between boating collisions and human interaction, The Center for Biological Diversity, along with other organizations, called for a need to further protect manatees in Kings Bay. Current manatee refuge zones in Kings Bay are roped off with buoys and marked with signs. “On one side of the sign, there is a “human fence” with people snorkeling shoulder to shoulder. On the other side are 20 manatees, huddled together along the shoreline. They aren’t coincidentally huddled in the roped off area because they know that’s their designated zone,” explains Lopez, “it’s because people have formed a human barrier around it and it’s effecting their behavior.”
March of 2012 brought about some hope for the problem in Kings Bay. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, a new proposal to protect manatees in Citrus County, “allows the Service flexibility to adjust the boundaries of the seven existing winter manatee sanctuaries during peak manatee and public use periods in order to prevent disturbance and harassment of manatees; establish additional temporary no-entry areas at lesser springs based on weather conditions and manatee use; and regulates boating speeds throughout the bay. It also defines what constitutes manatee harassment throughout Kings Bay. This will help the viewing public avoid disturbance of the manatees in the warm waters critical to the species’ survival.”
The finalized proposal also, “establishes certain speed zones and enforcement of the speed zones during the summer months, when recreation is at its highest,” adds Lopez.
While Collier County does not have the same issues as Kings Bay in Citrus County, it is considered part of the “Critical Habitat” of the manatee. Defined by the ESA as “the specific areas within the geographical area occupied by the species, at the time it is listed … on which are found those physical or biological features (I) essential to the conservation of the species and (II) which may require special management considerations or protection,” the critical habitat for the manatee actually encompasses the majority of the South Florida coast.
“That’s why the issue of speed zones in these boating areas is so important. Studies have been done showing that manatees can hear a boat coming, but they need a certain amount of reaction time,” continues Lopez. They need a boat to be traveling under a certain speed for them to be able to react to it. That’s assuming that there’s space for them to flee to.” In narrow canals, it is much more difficult for a manatee to move away from a boat than it is in open water.
It is crucial to not only follow no wake zone signs, but to always be aware of one’s surroundings when boating. If you happen to find yourself in the water with a manatee, the best thing to do is, “simply observe it. Don’t swim towards it, and if it swims towards you, don’t touch it, just observe it,” states Lopez. It is also important to understand that a true “eco-tour” will understand the difference between observation and harassment. Any company that offers swimming with manatees is actually doing a disservice to the protected mammals.
At 87 human-imposed deaths per year, the estimate by the US Fish and Wildlife Services acknowledges that this is seven times the number of manatees that can be killed without impairing the species’ recovery. If changes are not made regarding manatee protection and awareness, it seems that Florida’s beloved “sea cow” may sit forever on the Endangered Species list, or become extinct.
The Florida manatee is one of many endangered or threatened species within Florida that is protected by the ESA. If you come across a manatee in distress, call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Manatee Hotline at 1-888-404-3922. To learn more about the manatee or other endangered species visit www.biologicaldiversity.org