I grew up in Florida, in central Florida to be exact. As a kid we went to Blue Springs and other manatee havens on field trips, to observe these gentle and curious animals. They are huge, and as they tend to inhabit shallow areas of the Florida coastal waterways its easy to see them in the clear springs of Florida, and even swim with them in some cases (not recommended, as you may inadvertently injure them). In the 1980s and 1990s, when i lived there (before I went back for undergrad) manatee conservation was forefront. They were nearly gone; hunted to the brink of extinction in the earlier part of the century, with the remaining population falling prey to the razor-sharp propellers of fast-moving boats. During one field trip, we noticed that every single manatee had scars on its back. Yeah, every one. In fact, the conservationist leading the trip told us that that was how researchers told individual manatees apart in most cases. Because the scar patterns were unique, and manatees without scars were that rare. That made me incredibly sad.
Florida is a land of rich natural ecological beauty and diversity. When Europeans landed there hundreds of years ago, hundreds of times more manatees lived in Florida and were a vital part of the ecosystem of its waterways. Slow-moving and curious manatees were quickly hunted to low numbers for their meat and blubber until a very small population was left, quite similar to the plight of the slow and defenseless Dodo. As I look back, I feel very grateful that the elementary and middle-school teachers I had imparted to me a sense of wonder (rather than utility) in regards to the wildlife of Florida. Ecotourism is a huge part of what makes Florida special. If legislators and residents aren’t convinced that saving the manatee is important per se, they better look to their property values. Manatees eat aquatic plants which clog Florida’s waterways. When there are too few manatees (like now) these plants must be artificially cleared from the waterways else they clog boats and prevent safe (and fast) passage. This clearing sans manatees takes place at a cost to taxpayers and to boaters, therefore the presence of manatees actually makes boating better and easier. Eliminating this natural clearing system is downright stupid, if only from a fiscal perspective.
Given that Florida is reconsidering whether manatees are actually endangered, I thought I’d take a look myself and what seems to be the problem with these creatures: why do they keep getting run over by boats? Well part of the problem is that the number of boats in Florida has skyrocketed in the past 50 years. There are currently more than 900,000 boats registered in Florida and another 350,000 which are registered in other states by used in Florida. Thats a *lot* of boats in the water at any given time, and prime boating season coincides with manatee migration and high activity (they move when the water gets colder, which is when the snowbirds come to Florida to spend the winter). Below is a graph that charts the percentage of manatee deaths which are attributed to boating as well as how many manatees have been killed over the past few decades.
The other part of the problem, as detailed in studies by Ed Gerstein and colleagues, is that manatees live in an environment full of ambient noise and cannot reliably detect the sounds of boats. Therefore an on-board signaling device which is tailored to manatees (ie, a warning device) could prevent unnecessary deaths.
Manatees and whales may be well adapted to hear and detect significant biological sounds in their environments; however, boats, ships and barges were never part of their evolutionary histories. Thus these animals are faced with modern ecological challenges for which they are at a sensory disadvantage. In light of the psychoacoustic measurements described above, the known acoustical characteristics of shallow-water habitats, the spectra of boat noise and the dangerous, deceptive problem of acoustical shadowing, it is apparent that manatees, and perhaps other passive-listening marine mammals, could benefit from an acoustic warning device designed to fit on the front of boats, ships and barges.
However, the lobby group that is attempting to kick manatees off the endangered species list is twisting this research for their purposes: well, if manatees can’t hear the boats anyway, why make them slow down?
Thing is, the story of the manatees is not a new one. Human development hits an environmental snag. Said snag is preventing well-funded, well-connected interests from making money or enjoying themselves the way they deem fit. Guess what? In pretty much all situations its the environment that absorbs the damage, NOT the interested-party’s bottom line. Manatees will become extinct, because the number of boats isn’t going down, neither is the number of tourists and residents using the waterways, anytime soon. The reduction of protection for manatees isn’t done in the dark: ALL interested parties, and ALL governmental institutions know exactly what they are doing. They just don’t care.
Thats where the common citizen comes in. Only public outrage and outcry will change the minds of Florida legislators in regards to manatees and their protection. Florida should take up the flag themselves, and fight the good fight. It breaks my heart that that isn’t happening. Truth is, people are going to have to yell long and loud to counteract lobbyists who want to boat where-ever they please. Are conservationists up to the task? Where is the coverage, the blog posts, the opinion pieces, the stories in response?
If you are a blogger, or if you have a voice, please consider examining the issue. At risk of sounding like LeVar Burton, don’t take my word for it. Examine the issue yourself. Start here, and check out the link to the report in that post. And if you can do something, please do.