More than 1,000 Florida manatees died in 2021, threatening to put the friendly dugong back on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's endangered species list.
Manatees are a beloved marine animal that people have been excited about for a long time. They are 1,000-pound sea cows that spend their days grazing in underwater grasslands. On a good day, they can eat 10% of their weight in seaweed. They are slow and sluggish, like the koala bear, although their closest relative is the elephant.
Manatees migrate as far away as New York and Texas to spend the winter in Florida's freshwater springs, making their conservation in Florida critical to the species' survival, but the species has faced threat over the past few decades. Even with them out of “endangered” status, tours and swimming trips with these marine creatures may be on the verge of ending.
“In the end, we will only preserve what we love. We will only love what we understand. We will only understand what we have learned,” conservationist Papa Diom once said. Is this feeling a vital part in preserving a sheep? Is it the sea or a slippery slope that will lead to the marginalization of these iconic species?
Early protection for manatees
The Florida manatee is a subspecies of the West Indian manatee, and one of the first creatures listed as endangered when the federal Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973. In the mid-1970s, only about 1,000 individuals survived in Florida. Over the past 40 years, boat speed regulations, habitat protection and other measures have helped the population rebound. In early 2017, there were an estimated 6,620 manatees in Florida waters.
On March 30, 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a final decision to change the status of the West Indian manatee (including the Florida subspecies) from endangered—the most serious designation in the law—to endangered. In support of the reclassification, research ecologist Michael Runge, Ph.D., of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) said: “Manatee populations will continue to face threats, but if these threats continue to be managed effectively, manatees will be an integral part of the reclassification process.” “. And an iconic part of Florida's coastal ecosystems for the next century.
The supporting USGS study identified two serious long-standing threats to the Florida manatee population: fatal collisions with watercraft and the loss of warm-water habitats that provide refuge during the winter. It also contained an ominous warning that deaths from red tides would become an equally significant threat if these harmful algal blooms became more frequent and intense in the coming decades. Not only are red tides toxic to animals, they destroy vital sea grasses that are essential to the manatee's survival.
An unusual manatee mortality event has occurred on the Atlantic Coast
An unusual mortality event (UME) was caused by starvation due to forage shortages in an Indian River lagoon. It began in December 2020 on the Atlantic coast, and the investigation is ongoing. according to Frontiers in marine science In the article, between 2011 and 2019, the Indian River Lagoon lost approximately 58% of its seagrass. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission launched a temporary feeding program, but a long-term solution was needed to restore and protect the seagrass bed.
The silver lining of the die-off event was the renewed interest in manatee conservation. In July of 2021, the Florida Legislature provided $8 million for fiscal year 2021-2022 to help restore manatee access to springs and restore habitat in other areas important to manatees.
Reclassification of Florida manatees as an endangered species
In October of 2023, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completed a 90-day discovery on Endangered Species Act petition to reclassify the West Indian manatee, including the Antilles and Florida manatee subspecies, as a threatened species.
“The Service has a long history of working to save the manatee from extinction since it was one of the first species listed under the Introduction to the Endangered Species Act of 1967,” says Acting Southeast Regional Director Mike Oetker. “We are committed to ensuring we have the latest scientific information during this case review to protect and recover the species.”
The Service will conduct in-depth reviews and analyzes of the case using the best available science and information and issue 12-month findings to determine whether the actions sought are justified.
Crystal River swimming with manatees
Florida's Crystal River is widely considered the manatee capital of the world. It's the only place in North America where you can legally swim with manatees. Local guides are certified to ensure that these endangered species are treated with the utmost respect using responsible passive monitoring techniques approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. An estimated 300,000 people visit Crystal River each year with the opportunity to see manatees in their natural habitat.
“We protect the things we love,” says Jeff Sandmann, Crystal River boat captain. He adds that few animal encounters are as personal as a manatee's experience in the water.
He continues: “It is in our interest to do the right thing. You will get people to control themselves if it is in their interest.
He ensures all his clients have a short manatee awareness and protection course before they enter the water and is always on the lookout for unruly or misbehaving clients. To him, manatees come first, and he has full authority to turn any customer off the water for any reason he sees fit.
Local organizations, such as Save Crystal River and the Homosassa River Restoration Project, work hard to preserve and restore manatee habitat. Save Crystal River, Sea & Shoreline, another organization in the area, has restored more than 50 acres by removing millions of pounds of Lyngbya (an invasive weed) and other materials from the area's waterways. The Crystal River area now has the largest wintering manatee population in the state, and the population is considered a healthy benchmark in Florida due to its abundant food sources.
Will swimming with manatees continue in Crystal River?
As with all animals listed as endangered, protection begins at the federal level. “There are no discussions to modify existing trekking permits,” said Lourdes Mina, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's classification and recovery division.
She points to 2017 when manatees were reclassified as threatened. The Service continued to enforce the endangered species ban on manatees rather than develop species-specific rules. Accordingly, Mina concludes, “the protection of the West Indian manatee is the same whether the species is listed as threatened or endangered.”
Frank Calaccione, interim director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, is equally optimistic. “There should be no impact at all,” he explains. “Manatees are already protected by a large number of state and federal laws that explicitly spell out what people can and cannot do to manatees. Swim responsibly in the same habitat in which they live.” It will not violate these existing protections.
Swimming with manatees is one of the most transformative adventures in the world that has the power to educate audiences while inspiring love and commitment to change. It has proven to be an effective conservation tool in the past and has the potential to reach more people as the Crystal River manatee population grows and thrives.
Hello! We are Ed and Jane Coleman also known as Coleman Concierge. In short, we are a 10th generation couple from Huntsville sharing our stories of amazing adventures through transformative and experiential activity-based travel.