Boating safety, manatee safety are one and the same
In 2019, Florida’s manatees are being killed by boats at an unprecedented rate, with 93 through July 19. Of the 2,652 Florida manatees who have been labeled with a “watercraft” cause of death in the last 45 years, 1 percent were reported to wildlife authorities. That means more than 2,600 fatal manatee strikes were not reported. Factor in the manatees who are injured but not killed, and that’s tens of thousands of instances of vessel operators striking manatees but not telling anyone. I have struggled over the years to understand how an average-sized recreational vessel could hit anything in the water, let alone a 1,000-pound manatee, and the operator not realize he hit something.
Striking a manatee accidentally while driving attentively and in accordance with posted regulations is an accident. Colliding with a manatee due to inattention is negligent. Driving away from any possible collision with a manatee and not reporting it is both criminal and cruel.
When the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Division of Law Enforcement releases its annual boating accident report each year, inattention and failure to keep a proper lookout are the leading causes. The majority of these incidents involve collision with another vessel or a fixed object. Six of the top 10 counties for manatee watercraft deaths are also on the top 10 list for Florida boating accidents. It stands to reason that poles and sandbars aren’t the only objects with which distracted vessel operators are colliding, but that our manatees are falling victim to careless driving.
If this is indeed the case, then the solution is simple: pay attention, slow down, put away the cell phone, and leave the beer at home. Boats and wave runners are not toys. In careless hands, they are weapons. If you don’t want to do it for the manatees, do it for yourself, because the life you save could be your own. And thank you to those boaters who are vigilant and always keep safety on their minds while out on the water.
Please report injured or distressed manatees as soon as possible to the FWC by calling 888-404-FWCC (3922). You can also send a text message or email to Tip@MyFWC.com or use VHF Channel 16 on your marine radio. Visit SavetheManatee.org or call 800-432-JOIN (5646) for free public awareness signs, safe boating resources, and for other ways you can help protect manatees.
Dr. Katie Tripp has been Save the Manatee Club’s director of Science and Conservation since 2008. She received her doctorate in veterinary medical sciences from the University of Florida, where she conducted research on manatee physiology.