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Save manatees by being better coastal stewards | Opinion

The manatee is a threatened species. Here are some ways to give them what they need.
Red Huber, Orlando Sentinel
The manatee is a threatened species. Here are some ways to give them what they need.
Dan Sweeey, deputy opinions editor at the South Florida ֱ. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida ֱ)
PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

Every November is celebrated as Manatee Awareness Month, marked by the beginning of cooler temperatures and increased movement of manatees as they travel to warmer waters. It is also the perfect opportunity to educate Florida residents about these unique animals. As veterinarian and director of marine life conservation for Gumbo Limbo Coastal Stewards, I have over 12 years of marine animal rescue experience. During that time, I have witnessed both the tragedy of boat strikes and extensive harmful effects of plastic — on manatees, as well as on sea turtles and cetaceans.

Manatees are currently listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, but that hasn’t always been the case. While they are gentle giants with no natural predators, except for humans, in 1973, manatees were listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. A significant number of conservation strategies were put into effect, and in 2017, manatees were down-listed and designated threatened.

Dr. Shelby Loos, DVM, is director of marine life conservation for Gumbo Limbo Coastal Stewards.
Dr. Shelby Loos, DVM, is director of marine life conservation for Gumbo Limbo Coastal Stewards.

Unfortunately, over the past few years, we have seen an increase in manatee mortalities, and we are once again faced with the possibility of them returning to the endangered list. The leading causes of deaths in manatees include trauma from boat strikes, starvation from lack of sea grass due to pollution, cold stress due to loss of warm water habitats, increased and worsening episodes of red tide events, and other human-related causes such as plastic ingestion and entanglement in fishing lines.

This is about more than just the survival of Florida’s beloved sea cows. Manatees serve an important role in our local ecosystem. They help maintain the health of seagrass beds — their main source of food — which in turn helps other organisms that depend on the seagrass. Manatees also serve as an indicator of how the environments we share are faring and how we, as fellow mammals, will be affected.

It is our responsibility to help protect the dwindling population of manatees by being better coastal stewards. Here are some of the ways we can all help protect manatees and their fellow aquatic animals.

  • Do not feed or provide hose water to manatees! Although typically done with good intentions, it actually puts them in danger. The natural fear manatees should have of humans is lessened, which increases the probability of them entering highly populated boating areas where the risk of injury and death increases.
  • Minimize the use of single use plastics and recycle. Manatees, like other marine species, can become entangled in or even ingest these plastics.
  • Reduce the use of fertilizer. When fertilizer enters our waterways, it creates harmful algal blooms, which destroy native seagrass. Seagrass beds are a critical habitat and food source for many species, including manatees.
  • Follow all posted waterway signs that indicate boat speed for manatee zones and avoid boating in seagrass or shallow areas, where manatees typically reside. To prepare ahead of time, use the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission’s (FWC) manatee and boating safety zones maps.
  • When boating, wear polarized sunglasses to improve visualization and watch for the manatee “footprint,” a circular swirl in the water created by their paddle as they swim.
  • Never approach or attempt to interact with any marine animal. Observe them from a safe distance. Not only is it illegal, but it could interfere with their natural behaviors such as feeding, resting and mating, all of which are critical to the species’ survival.
  • If you accidentally hit a manatee while boating, don’t panic! As long as you were operating at the appropriate speed limit, you won’t be in trouble. However, it’s critical that you report the accident to the FWC so they can respond as quickly as possible and hopefully save the manatee’s life.

Remember, if you see an injured, orphaned, entangled, distressed or dead manatee, report it to the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida by calling the Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-3922. Early reporting sets the rescue team in motion so that wounded or sick animals can be saved.

Dr. Shelby Loos, DVM, is director of marine life conservation for Gumbo Limbo Coastal Stewards (GLCS) in Boca Raton. She leads all wildlife conservation efforts for GLCS, which includes sea turtles, manatees and cetaceans. Loos has over 12 years of marine animal rescue experience and is a graduate of the University of Florida with a certificate in aquatic animal medicine. 

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