November is almost here, and you know what that means…Manatee Awareness Month! Manatees are a wonderful, magical and crucial part of life in Florida. Like all animals on this planet, manatees are an essential part of the ecosystem. Unfortunately, Florida manatees are listed as “Threatened” under the Federal Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Florida Administrative Code – Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act (FMSA). It is up to us to help save the manatees, less they face the risk of extinction. So, in honor of Manatee Awareness Month, lets learn more about these magnificent creatures and how we can help.
The Florida Manatee
Florida manatees, or sea cows, are aquatic mammals belonging to a subspecies of the West Indian manatee. They can be found all around the state and even as far west as Texas. During the winter though, they migrate back to Florida because they need the warmth to survive.
What Do They Look Like?
Manatees are large, long, and round. A manatee calf is born weighing about 60-70 pounds and as adults, they typically grow to about 9-10 feet long, weighing in at around 1,000 pounds. Some manatees can get as long as 13 feet and weight almost 3,500 pounds! They are grey in color, but algae often grow on their backs and tails, making them appear brown or green. They have two front flippers used for steering and holding their food while they eat. The back flipper is long, round and flat and is used to propel the manatee throughout the water.
Manatees also have ridiculously cute snouts that do more than make us saw “aww”; the snout has a flexible lip pad that they use to push food into their mouths. The nostrils are located above the snout and have valves that close tightly when the manatee is submerged. Their eyes are quite small, with membranes that cover them for protection. You may also notice small round scars on their tails or backs. These scars are from barnacles that attach themselves to the manatee while in saltwater. Once the manatee migrates to freshwater, the barnacles dislodge since they are saltwater arthropods.
Manatees are slow-moving, gentle herbivores. They spend most of their time resting, traveling, and feeding. They tend to eat about 10% of their body weight for an average of 8 hours per day. Manatees favor seagrasses and floating plants but will eat plenty of other marine or freshwater vegetation. Given that they are mammals, they do have to come to the surface regularly to breathe in air – approximately every 3-5 minutes – but they can hold their breath for up to 20 minutes when resting. They rest anywhere from 2-12 hours per day, usually at the surface of the water or at the bottom of shallow waters.
The Florida manatee will travel all over the state looking for food, a mate or a place to rest. They are somewhat social creatures, especially when migrating or huddled together in warm waters during the winter months; however, they don’t typically form family units. Males (bulls) usually leave the female (cow) once they have mated. Cows have a 13-month gestation period and the calf usually stays with the mother for about 2 years. Other than that, manatees are quite solitary.
Manatees often migrate all around the state of Florida and in the warmer months, you can find them in the Carolinas, Georgia, Louisiana, and on rare occasions, as far north as Massachusetts or as far west as Texas. They will always make their way back home to Florida in the winter months though because their bodies cannot handle temperatures below 68°F for an extended period of time as it effects their digestion and stress levels.
Manatees can handle both saltwater and freshwater, and like to hang out in coastal waters, rivers, springs, estuaries and even power plant discharge canals; each location offering its own unique set of benefits. Power plant discharge canals offer industrial sources of warm waters, while estuaries, rivers and springs afford plenty of aquatic vegetation.
Threats to Florida Manatees
Manatees currently face many threats, most of which are man-made. The top two threats to this incredible species are boat collisions and loss of warm water habitat. Other threats include but are not limited to fatal run-ins with fishing equipment and trash, getting trapped, disease, natural disasters and Red Tide.
Human Impact on Manatees
Human recreation and fishing can have detrimental impacts on the manatee population since they live in the shallows. This makes them susceptible to dangerous interactions with many human-related activities.
Boats can be deadly to manatees if they get cut by the propellers or hit by a boat’s hull. Large ships have also been known to crush or trap manatees between the ship and another obstacle.
Habitat loss is becoming a problem for many animals around the world, and the manatee is no exception. Since manatees have very particular climate needs, loss of habitat areas can be deadly. Coastal development and pollution are directly affecting aquatic vegetation availability and water quality.
Fishing Equipment & Trash
It is not uncommon for manatees to die or become seriously injured as a direct result of getting tangled in fishing line, crab traps or large pieces of trash in the water. Manatees are notoriously curious, inspecting items with their flippers and mouths that can often be dangerous. Even if the manatees are rescued and rehabilitated, the injuries can form scar tissue which scientists believe often leads to recurring entanglements. Fishing equipment and trash can also be swallowed, which can be fatal.
Flood Gates & Canal Locks
On occasion, manatees can get trapped in flood gates, canal locks or culverts, where they will eventually starve.
Manatee Protection Zones
Because manatees are a Threatened species, the FMSA affords Florida’s Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) the ability to set and strictly enforce boat speed and access restrictions throughout manatee habitats.
What are Manatee Protection Rules?
“Manatee protection rules are rules that are established by FWC to restrict the speed and operation of vessels where necessary to protect manatees from harmful collisions with vessels and from harassment. In areas that are especially important to manatees, the rules can prohibit or limit entry into an area as well as restrict what activities can be performed in the area.” This means it is inherently important that you make sure you are not planning to take your boat out into waters that are protected and watch your speed!
Where are the Protection Zones?
There are counties all over the state that have either Year-Round Protection Zones or Seasonal Protection Zones, so please be sure to check for Protection Zones near you.
Brevard, Broward, Citrus, Flagler, Hillsborough, Indian River, Lee, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Pinellas, Sarasota, St. Lucie, Volusia (includes parts of Lake, Marion, Putnam & Seminole counties along the St. John’s River)
Charlotte & associated counties (includes parts of DeSoto county along the Peace River), Collier, Duval & associated counties (includes parts of Clay & St. John’s counties along the St. Johns River), Manatee, Martin
Protected Area Permits
Under special circumstances, permits may be granted that authorize faster speeds or access in protected areas. Such circumstances may be related to:
- Research and education
- Construction, maintenance and repair
- Commercial fishing
- Professional fishing guide
- Waterfront property owners or residents
- Vessel or motor manufacturers
- Boat races
If you would like more information on obtaining a permit, please visit this page.
How Can You Help?
Be Prepared and Aware on the Waterways
One of the best ways to protect the manatee population is simply through knowledge. Whether you are getting ready for a day trip on your Bennington or Grady White, or you’re taking your kayak out for a few hours, these tips and knowledge checks could save a life!
- Secure items on your vessel or in your recreation area that may blow into the water.
- Dispose of your fishing line (and any other trash) properly and collect any plastic items or fishing line you see.
- Recycling your fishing line is easy. Just keep an eye out for those large white PVC tubes that are designed specifically for collecting used fishing line.
- Obey all posted waterway signs.
- Use Protection Zone Maps when planning your day.
- Use propeller (prop) guards appropriately if you have a guard on your vessel.
- Reduce your speed while using a prop guard to give manatees time to get out of your way. A slower speed also reduces the chance that the guard will harm a manatee if it is struck by the guard.
- Avoid traveling in seagrass or other shallow areas where manatees may be feeding or resting.
- Look out for manatees and give them space.
- If they react to your vessel, you are too close. Slowly move away.
- Know the difference between a Crab Trap Buoy and a Manatee Research Tag.
- Report injured, orphaned, entangled, distressed or dead manatees to the FWC.
- Call the Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-3922 or by using your cell phone to call *FWC. You can also text #FWC to Tip@MyFWC.com.
Be Active in Your Community
The FWC and other local organizations always have internship and volunteer opportunities to get involved with. Go out and participate in shoreline or beach cleanup events; get involved in community service projects that benefit manatee conservation; sponsor a fishing line recycling bin in your area. Whatever you do, we promise it will be worth it and it will make a difference. Don’t forget to educate your friends and family along the way.
Show Your Support
Showing your support for manatee protection and conservation efforts is super simple. By purchasing a specialty Save the Manatee license plate or decal, you can make a statement and an impact! You can also….are you ready for this….adopt a manatee!! When you adopt your very own manatee, you will get a certificate with an image of your manatee, a membership handbook, e-newsletters and for a limited time, the 40th Anniversary Edition manatee wall calendar when you adopt at the $25 membership level or above.
All proceeds from the above-mentioned support options go to programs that help to protect manatees with research and conservation management.
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Please remember, manatees could be anywhere! They like to travel, eat and sleep in areas where humans tend to roam, which makes it our responsibility to ensure they are safe. Let’s do our part to raise awareness all November long