Sometimes called a sea cow, this large aquatic relative of the elephant is usually found in shallow and warm coastal areas feeding on plants like sea grass. Unfortunately, the Florida manatee population is endangered, and these animals face a number of human-made threats. In November, as manatees search for the warm-water shelters once common along the Florida coast, we take this time to raise public awareness of the threats to these beloved but endangered sea creatures.
How You Can Help
With collisions with watercraft as their leading cause of death, and residential development eating up much of the warm springs habitat on which they rely, there’s no question that manatees need our help. Whether you’re a Florida resident, a frequent visitor, or just want to get involved, check out the ways that you can help these gentle giants.
Threats to Florida Manatees
These gentle marine giants face a number of threats to their survival, many of which are caused by humans.
- WATERCRAFT COLLISIONS
The leading human-caused threat to Florida manatees is collisions with watercraft. Propellers and boat hulls inflict serious or mortal wounds, and most manatees have a pattern of scars on their backs or tails after surviving collisions with boats. Scientists believe that unless this cause of death is controlled, the manatee population will not recover.
- HABITAT LOSS
The greatest long-term threat to manatees involves the loss of warm-water habitat that manatees need to survive. At temperatures below 68 degrees Fahrenheit, the stress of the cold can become dangerous, or even fatal. Over the past 10 years, Florida’s manatees have had higher-than-usual numbers of deaths from cold stress. The winter of 2010 saw a total of 766 manatees killed, nearly 300 of them by an extended period of very cold weather.
Because residential development has greatly reduced the natural warm water springs used by manatees to stay warm, as much as two-thirds of the manatee population relies on the warm-water outfalls at electric power plants on cold winter days. A large number of manatees could be lost in the next few decades if natural areas are not available to manatees as aging plants are shut down or experience equipment failures. Their survival will depend on protecting natural springs and healthy habitat.
When humans disturb manatees, it can cause them to alter their breeding, feeding, sheltering and other natural behaviors, and puts them in harm’s way. Feeding manatees; using water to attract manatees to a boat, dock or marina; separating a mother and her calf; disturbing resting or mating manatees; chasing them from warm water sites; hitting or poking manatees; jumping on, standing on, holding onto or riding the animals – all of these actions can cause manatees serious harm.
- RED TIDE
A red tide is a naturally-occurring event that begins offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, when large amounts of certain species of algae bloom. This algae contains natural neurotoxins, which can be dangerous to humans and local wildlife. Once the bloom moves closer to shore, nutrient pollutants in agricultural or urban runoff can make the problem worse by fueling larger and more persistent blooms. Manatees come into contact with red tide in the shallow waters in southwest Florida. They can inhale red tide neurotoxins when they surface to breathe, and ingest them when they eat seagrass coated by the algae. The toxins cause seizures that, if severe enough, can prevent manatees from lifting their snouts above the water to breathe, which causes them to drown.
2013 was the deadliest year on record for manatees – more than 830 animals died. An unprecedented number of these marine mammals died from a large and persistent red tide outbreak in southwest Florida, while many more manatees have perished in Brevard County on Florida’s Atlantic coast following a massive dieoff of seagrass, their main food source.