Florida’s manatees are dying in record numbers. The Sunshine State recorded 1,101 manatee deaths in 2021, which is nearly twice the number that died in 2020.
A large number of deaths occurred at the beginning of 2021, on Florida’s northern Indian River Lagoon when cold weather caused many of the animals to become stressed, but at least 100 deaths were due to watercraft collisions.
The beloved creature is also under duress due to habitat loss and a lack of food. Seagrass, the manatee’s main food, is disappearing at alarming rates. Algae blooms—caused by pollution from septic or sewer systems and fertilizer runoff—deprive seagrass of sunlight and oxygen. Red tides also contribute to seagrass loss. Late last year, to blunt the threat of starvation, Florida wildlife officials took the unusual step of feeding romaine lettuce to wild manatees.
Manatees were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1967. The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, made it illegal to harass, hunt, capture, or kill any marine mammal. The first aerial survey in 1991 found 1,267 manatees. By creating sanctuaries, speed zones and manatee rescue programs, and by educating the public about the slow-moving creatures, the 2017 Florida count found 6,300 animals. That year, the federal government changed the gentle creatures’ status to threatened, but with a low birth rate—a mature female only gives birth once every two to five years—the 2021 death toll, which is more than 15 percent of the known population, is alarming.
Because not all dead manatees were necropsied, experts say the number of manatees killed by watercraft collision in 2021 was probably much higher than 100. In past years watercraft have been responsible for as much as 50 percent of manatee deaths. Due to the creatures’ slow speed, high buoyancy, and tendency to feed on seagrass in shallow water, manatees often have little time to escape fast-moving boats and jet skis.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says manatees should not be fed, touched, pursued, chased or disturbed. Manatees are migratory and can be found as far north as Massachusetts and as far west as Texas. Boaters can protect manatees by keeping an eye out for the mammals, which need to surface to breathe, and by understanding sign postings in known manatee habitats.
The four typical signs in manatee protection zones are:
Idle speed zone: This protected area prohibits boats from going any faster than necessary to ensure they do not produce any wake.
Slow speed zone: Boats must be fully off plane and completely settled and level in the water while moving with minimum wake.
Motorboats prohibited zone: Prohibits entry by power-driven vessels or those operating under mechanical means of propulsion.
No entry zone: Like the name implies, no entry, which means no boating, swimming, wading, fishing or diving activities.
Boaters can also help by reporting tagged, sick, injured, orphaned or dead manatees and by reporting any harassment incidents to local wildlife officials.