Manatees are dying at a record pace from boat strikes, according to Florida wildlife officials.
Through the first half of 2019, 89 manatees had been killed by watercraft, compared to 65 during the same time period last year, according to a report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The five-year average for the same time period is 55.
While numbers fluctuate year-by-year, 2019 has already broken a new record for manatee deaths by watercraft, according to Patrick Rose, executive director of Save the Manatee Club, which advocates for manatee protection.
Rose, who has been working with this native species for more than 40 years, said he is worried about the animal’s future, despite its reclassification from “endangered” to “threatened” in 2017.
The marine mammal’s status was changed that year after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service annual count recorded over 6,000 manatees lumbering in Florida’s warm waters. It was also the third consecutive year the population was estimated to have increased, a trend federal wildlife managers said was a sign of successful recovery for a species that once numbered in the hundreds.
Rose disagreed with the decision back then, saying it would “seriously undermine the chances of securing the manatee’s long-term survival.”
He still disagrees with it now, especially after the disastrous blow the population received last year.
“It went backwards,” Rose said.
The FWC recorded 824 deaths in 2018, the highest since 2013 when 830 deaths were recorded. Of those deaths, 224 are known to have been caused by red tide, according to the FWC’s 2018 preliminary red tide report.
Why are more manatees dying by watercraft?
Watercraft-related deaths are one of the major long-term threats to the manatee population, according to Rose and the FWC.
Two manatees were rescued Monday after being injured by a watercraft, according to Rose. One of them, a small adult manatee, was rescued from Melbourne Beach and is currently being cared for by SeaWorld. The other was a small calf from the Ten Thousand Islands. It died while being transported on the rescue boat.
Lee County, which is the area around Fort Myers, has the highest watercraft death toll for 2019 — to date — with 22 deaths. It’s followed by Brevard and Volusia County, both with nine reported deaths. Miami-Dade and Broward County are on the lower spectrum of the toll, with two and three reported deaths. Six smaller counties had zero watercraft-related deaths.
Lee County has several manatee habitats but has been struggling with pollution and was also hit hard by last year’s red tide, Rose said.
Overall though, Rose and the FWC both believe the rise in deaths has to do with more boaters in Florida’s waters this year, which increases the risk of a run-in with a manatee.
The weather has been good, the economy is doing well and gas prices are relatively affordable, Rose said, which usually means more people are buying or renting boats. There’s also been an “unparalleled growth” in new waterfront development, he said.
The FWC and Rose are asking boaters to be more careful when out on the water.
What can boaters do to protect manatees?
▪ Be vigilant when you’re out in the water, especially if you’re in an area known to have manatees. It’s recommended you wear polarized glasses.
▪ Follow the posted speed limits, especially in manatee zones.
▪ Keep an eye out for large tell-tale circles or snouts sticking out of the water. This means a manatee is swimming by.
▪ Stay away from seagrass areas. That’s usually where manatees find food.
The Save the Manatee Club also provides free banners for boaters and for residents who live by the water. They can use these banners to warn others that manatees are in the area.
Rose also recommends people get involved in their local community and spread awareness about the importance of protecting manatees and Florida’s water quality.
Not only does manatees’ selective grazing help support Florida’s aquatic ecosystem, Rose said, but without them our state’s ecosystem would become “unbalanced.”
What should I do if I find an injured manatee?
Whether you find an injured manatee or hit one accidentally while boating, you should call 888-404-FWCC (888-404-3922) and report it. This increases their chances of survival, Rose said, because the manatee can get rescued and taken to a rehabilitation center.
You can also send a text to Tip@MyFWC.com
Those interested in learning other ways to spread awareness can click here.