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Correcting some manatee facts

By Staff | Jun 17, 2015

To the editor:

I debated strongly with myself whether to respond to a letter from Mr. Sabatino since I don’t want to start a war here. But I would like to correct, if I may, some “facts.”

Taking statistics only for 2014 from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWCC) webpage, the FWCC states that 68 manatees died as a result of boat-related injuries. For the time period of 2009 to 2014, between 68 and 97 manatee deaths each year have been attributed to the FWCC classification of “watercraft” (i.e., boats). The FWCC determines these numbers–not the Save the Manatee Club (SMC), and it is not the 2-3 you suggest “in truth” (where did you get your numbers?).

So far, for 2015 (from Jan. 1 through May 29), the FWCC reports that 39 manatees have been killed by watercraft and they still have seven months of data to collect for the year.

I am not certain where information that aerial surveys from the “late 1950s” placed the manatee population at “roughly 600” came from.

I could only find FWCC aerial statistics back to 1991 which states the synoptic population count was then 1267. Who was counting them in the 1950s?

As a note: the first 1966 Federal Endangered Species Preservation Act included a list of threatened and endangered species and the Florida Manatee was one of the mammals listed then. So, somebody must have counted them at some point and determined the species needed protection.

Over the past few years mortality numbers between categories have shifted because of extenuating events with extreme cold weather, outbreaks of red tide, and the collapse of the Indian River Lagoon ecosystem, among other factors but, in general, HUMAN related causes lead the statistics when it comes to manatee mortality.

Even with the categories of “undetermined” or “unrecovered”, if you take the same percentage of watercraft deaths and apply it to them it would still show that watercraft are the biggest HUMAN threat. We can’t do anything about “natural” causes of death, but we can eliminate or reduce the human causes, and maybe some of those “natural” deaths weren’t so “natural” after all.

My fear is the number of perinatal deaths seems to be climbing on that FWCC mortality chart. Those are manatees under five feet (juveniles) and the deaths could not be attributed to any other cause.

Those animals represent the next generations and they may not live long enough to reproduce in sustainable numbers.

What will the status of the manatee be in 20 or 30 years as the older ones die or get killed? Who will replace them? It is already known that a manatee can live over 60 years (note that Snooty in captivity is turning 67). National Geographic says that manatees in the wild may only have an average life span of around 40 years.

Do you think elephant hides are tough and manatee hides are like an elephant’s? Yes, they are related and both can take a fair amount of punishment, but if you were constantly beset upon by boat impacts and propellers leaving scars and cutting you to the bone would you not be scarred and in pain?

Manatee ribs are like china plates; very strong until you drop them and then they can shatter. Pieces of ribs from speeding boat impacts can penetrate lungs and cause other internal injuries.

The animal may die slowly, in agony, without a mark on it until a necropsy is performed. There is a manatee recovering at SeaWorld now who is wearing a custom wetsuit while it heals from a boat impact that damaged its lung. It’s not the first.

Yes, better record keeping, more education, more regulations, and more enforcement of those regulations, has allowed the population to expand and I’m very glad to see that happening, but the threats to manatees have not been resolved.

Red tide and other “natural” threats are increasing, not decreasing. HUMANS created the issues where manatees go to power plants to seek warm water in the winter.

And, those aging power plants are being upgraded or taken off-line so what do we tell the manatees who have been telling their young for over 60 years that they are viable locations?

A calf may stay with its mother for up to two years for it to learn how to survive. She shows the calf those places.

HUMANS, with increased development and population have polluted, shut down, and re-directed water from our aquifer and natural springs which manatees have depended upon for warm water during the cold months for centuries. Where will they go?

Florida does not have the laws, punishments, and enforcement needed to control the waterways.

All our waterways have become aquatic highways. Drink and drive go to jail and lose your license. Drink and boat go to jail, but you can still legally operate a boat when you get out.

People are getting killed too. Back to the FWCC for statistics: in 2013 (latest year available) 51 people were killed in boat-related incidents. Statistics from 2010 provided by the National Marine Manufacturer’s Association (NMMA) state that there were 914,535 registered boats in the State of Florida.

The manatee population for 2010 was counted by the FWCC at 5,077 for that year. So, there were approximately 180 boats for every one manatee. No wonder they all bear boat scars.

Yes, the original name of “West Indian Manatee” is still apropos, but it has been determined that the “Florida Manatee” has evolved to be treated as a separate sub-species.

According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) “The West Indian manatee, Trichechus manatus, includes two distinct subspecies, the Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) and the Antillean manatee (Trichechus manatus manatus).”

Yes, I agree that unless the water is crystal clear you may not see a manatee in the water. That’s why it’s important to obey speed zones and try to steer clear of areas where you believe manatees to be.

Unfortunately, no one has been able to teach manatees to stay in the slow speed zones so it’s up to humans to keep an eye out for them. Just like you slow down for school speed zones, trust the “kids” not always to be where you expect them to be.

Besides being illegal, the problem of human interaction with manatees is that there are TOO MANY OF US! How would you like it if someone invaded your home and constantly wanted to pet you, jump on you, tease you, separate you from your child, or subject you to a host of other engagements that you may not be interested in?

The water is the manatee’s home. They can’t leave.

The issue of humans interacting with manatees and providing them with food and water is the same as humans getting close to squirrels and deer by providing them snacks.

It interferes with their natural feeding behaviors and draws them into closer contact with humans who may not be as friendly. Yes, manatees are lazy just like us. If someone hands you a fresh drink do you always turn it down?

However, your neighbor might not be so generous. He may throw his anchor at you if you approach him. So, for the manatees’ sake, please don’t give them water.

If you live in a crowded area you are also making it less safe for manatees as they try to navigate already hazardous areas to get to your fresh water.

The same goes with feeding them. They won’t turn down lettuce; my dog won’t turn down chocolate either.

But again, feeding chocolate to dogs is a BIG no-no, just like feeding manatees some iceberg lettuce is about as healthy. It probably won’t hurt them but it’s non-nutritious.

And, again, it brings the circle around to interfering with their natural behaviors and making them navigate possibly unsafe areas to get to your buffet.

Yes, some manatees are curious and some will seek out humans to have a bit of fun of their own sometimes. Just like you want to see them, sometimes they want to see you too. But you can go home when you are tired; they are home and you need to leave.

In the interest of full disclosure: my husband and I have been members and volunteers for SMC for over 25 years. They are a worthy organization with a small dedicated staff who are not in it for the money but are in it for the protection of the species.

You’ll notice that my information is not related to SMC in any way, but are the statistics and facts reported by other government agencies, organizations, and publications.

Checking your facts is not difficult these days with the omnipotent computer search engines out there. The views expressed here are solely my own.

If you find verifiable disagreement with my statistics please let me know. I’m still ready to learn.

Manatees are predator and prey to nothing. Their only enemy is man. Help them live.

Florida panthers also need your assistance and protection but they have several organizations fighting for their survival. I’m sure they would be appreciative of any assistance you cared to provide.

For us, for now, we’ll keep our efforts to protecting manatees for the future.

Thank you for your attention.


Mrs. Debra Lyn Brown

Sources for research: