Florida’s woeful water conditions may be driving manatees into new, more hazardous territory.
In 2019, the number of manatees killed by boats reached a new high. Of the 574 deaths recorded as of Dec. 20, 130 were caused by collisions with boats, marking the third year in a row that fatal boat strikes increased.
Save the Manatee Club Executive Director Pat Rose suspects that's tied to recent years with toxic algae blooms that damaged habitat and forced the lumbering fish to find new grazing grounds.
“We’ve had everything from red tide to brown tide to blue green algal blooms and the food resources for manatees are being impacted. In some places, it's being lost altogether,” said Rose, who led the state’s manatee protection efforts in the 1980s and '90s. “The habitat itself is being disrupted to the point where manatees are having to move and seek food in places where they maybe didn’t have to before.”
At the same time, he said, boat traffic in Florida waters is increasing.
“Florida’s economy is booming and fuel costs are quite reasonable, so we’re having a lot more boating hours going on,” he said.
In 2018, a fierce red tide that washed up and down the Gulf Coast killed 177 manatees and was suspected in the deaths of another 112. That pushed the death count to 804, nearly tying the 2013 record of 830, when red tide was blamed for 277 deaths. Last year, red tide was suspected or confirmed in just 20 deaths.
Manatees were among the first species to come under federal protection at the turn of the century, and became a model for how booming Florida co-existed with its wild borders. But in 2000, then-U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and singer Jimmy Buffet — who both formed the Save the Manatee Club in 1981 to draw attention to manatees — sued the federal government for failing to enforce protections.
The population began to increase and in 2017, with a count of about 6,600, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared manatees had recovered and moved them from the endangered to the threatened species list.
At the time, Rose and other critics of the downlisting worried that the Service had not sufficiently considered changes in habitat and increased pressure from development. They also worried that power plants, that draw wintering manatees to their warm waters, could shut down and force manatees to find new ranges.
“Long-term, we have to protect existing springs, but we also have to give manatees access to areas that were lost,” Rose said. “We have to do a better job of being sustainable, but we also have to make up for our past sins.”
This year, the population survey was the lowest in five years, falling from a high of 6,620 in 2017, before the red tide set in, to 5,733, according the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. About 150 injured manatees were rescued and successfully treated, Rose said, so the death toll could have been higher.
“One thing I think we can say categorically,” he said, “is that this increase in mortality is not because we’re suddenly having a lot more manatees.”