As more people take to the waterways this summer, silent giants lurk precariously below the surface, endangered by the recreational equipment and speed humans enjoy so much.
Florida manatees are caught in a struggle between those fighting for the mammals' lives and those who feel the government is abusing its power to protect them.
In December 2012, the Pacific Legal Foundation filed a petition to lower manatees' designation from endangered to threatened, citing federal data it claimed supported the down-listing.
But in the first three months of this year, a record number of manatee deaths — 270 — were reported in southwest Florida due to toxic algae, or red tide, according to mortality data from the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). In 2012, FWC counted 33 manatee deaths due to red tide.
The last population count of manatees was taken in 2011 by the FWC, which found a total of 4,834 manatees in the state. That number may sound like a lot, but in a city of more than 800,000 people, the highest count in the Jacksonville area was 172. The manatee population has grown since the 1970s, when its numbers dwindled to fewer than 600.
The Florida manatee, or trichechus manatus latirostris, is native to the state. The beloved mammal's weight can average more than 1,000 pounds, with lengths from 9 to 10 feet, according to the FWC. In early America, Native Americans and settlers hunted the manatee, but in 1893, legislation was passed prohibiting the killing of manatees, according to the FWC. Then in 1976, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) listed the Florida manatee as a protected animal under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) states that manatees are important because of the role they have not only in the in the ecosystem, but in ecotourism as well. Today, manatees' survival depends on multiple factors including habitat, pollution, boating and weather.
The Pacific Legal Foundation's (PLF) petition with the federal government was filed in December 2012 on behalf of the Save Crystal River (SCR) nonprofit group to down-list the West Indian manatee and its subspecies, the Florida and the Antillean manatees, from endangered to threatened. The USFWS defines threatened species as those that are vulnerable to endangerment in the near future. Endangered species face a very high risk of extinction. This petition bases its claim on the recommendation by USFWS to down-list the species based on the data analysis and criteria for endangered species in the Five-Year Manatee Review conducted in 2007, though the data used to predict the future of manatees could only be speculation based on the current knowledge of that time.
"The purpose of the petition is to ‘nudge' the federal government into complying with the agency's responsibility under the Endangered Species Act, which includes properly classifying a species based upon its current status," PLF attorney Alan E. Desario said. PLF, formed in 1973 as sort of a watchdog legal group, works to balance environmental protection laws with individual and property rights.
In February 2013, Cynthia Dohner, USFWS Southeast regional director, responded to the petition. In a letter addressed to the Pacific Legal Foundation, Dohner recognized that Antillean manatees should be down-listed to threatened based on the 2007 review. The letter explains that the USFWS, along with its partners, will be bringing their recommendations into the Endangered Species Act rule-making process sometime in 2013.
Katie Tripp, director of science and conservation for the Save the Manatee Club, said that down-listing may draw much-needed attention away from manatees.
When she was 11, Tripp saw a PBS special about manatees' loss of habitat.
"That day I was frustrated," she said. "I couldn't understand why a defenseless animal that never hurt anyone would come under fire."
Tripp also took a vacation with her family where she encountered an injured manatee named Fathom that was being rehabilitated. Fathom required a wetsuit because of a punctured lung; that motivated Tripp to dedicate her life to manatees.
Save the Manatee Club is one of the largest nonprofit manatee conservation organizations and was established by musician Jimmy Buffett and Bob Graham, former U.S. senator and Florida governor. The group works on manatee advocacy, legislation issues and coordinating efforts with local and international agencies.
Tripp also expressed concern with future habitat losses, especially those in the warm water surrounding power plants. She reported seeing 1,000 manatees at one power plant alone and 900 at another. If a power plant experiences a shutdown or alternate sources of energy are used in the future, then manatees will lose these warm waters.
"Down-listing could send out the wrong message, so people are not as worried about protecting them," Tripp said. "Still [have] a long way to go for recovering."
The mission of Save Crystal River, which supports the petition to down-list West Indian manatees, is to secure and enhance the quality of life for the citizens of Crystal River and its surrounding areas through education and awareness by concerned members of the community, according to its website.
SCR President Steve Lamm contacted the Pacific Legal Foundation after his group became concerned with USFWS imposing more control over Crystal River waterways and marshlands. Lamm initiated the contact with PLF because it advocates for the protection of private property rights and misapplication of environmental laws. Those who live around Crystal River face stricter laws to help the environment and manatee population.
These strict laws are nothing new. In 1983, the 177 acres of Crystal River were designated as a wildlife refuge, 40 acres of which were designated as manatee sanctuaries. As the first designation by the USFWS to protect manatees in Crystal River and its headwaters, Kings Bay was listed in the 1977 Federal Register. In March 2012, USFWS designated the waters in and surrounding Kings Bay in Citrus County a manatee wildlife refuge. In the final ruling, USFWS imposed higher restrictions on the area between November and March, when manatees congregate in the warmer waters. In summer months, June 1 through Aug. 15, boating speeds are limited to 25 miles per hour during daylight. USFWS said that because manatees approach boats, anchoring is also prohibited during that time.
High-speed boating in Crystal River is not only dangerous for manatees, it can also cause more saltwater to mix in and turn up sediment, which can change the composition of the springs, according to a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). One of the effects is a rise in toxic algae blooms, which are harmful to both sea life and humans.
Anyone who has gone boating in Northeast Florida can relate to the frustration of no-wake or slow-speed zones. But many people feel these manatee slow-speed zones are vital to the protection of manatees. Mike Moore, owner of Blue Water Outfitters, has been a boater in Jacksonville for 20 years.
"Speed regulations are fine," Moore said. "We see a lot of manatees, fun to watch."
Moore said he works with FWC to control grass carp, a large species native to Asia. Grass carp can eat up to 100 pounds of vegetation a day and destroy manatee feeding areas.
Like Moore, many Jacksonville boaters feel that the no-wake and slow-speed zones are important — not just for the environment but for human safety.
"We fish a lot in the no-wake zones, and it kills me to see how a lot of people don't slow down," said Rachel Parker, a Jacksonville boater and fisher.
Jeff Wansor, a boat captain and owner of Beaches Fishing Charters, expressed the need for slow-speed zones.
"I think they are necessary in certain locations: intersections, around bridges, marinas, etc. It only takes a holiday weekend around 1 p.m. in the Intracoastal Waterway to realize that," Wansor said.
Next to the recent red tide deaths, boats have been biggest killers of manatees. Statewide, 81 manatees were reported dead due to watercraft accidents in 2012. The total number of boating-related manatee deaths has not changed by more than 10 percent in the past 10 years. According to data provided to the FWC from the Marine Mammal Pathobiology Laboratory, 37 watercraft-related manatee deaths have been reported in Florida though June 16 this year.
Manatees' grayish skin color blends in with the water, making it difficult for boaters to see them before it's too late. Manatees are slow and usually move about 1 to 4 mph; they can move at their peak speed of 15 mph for only short periods of time. Manatees spend much of their time feeding close to the surface, which makes them vulnerable to boat propellers.
One of the problems that citizens of Crystal River have faced is no-entry zones in certain waterways. These require residents and their guests to obtain permits for access to their adjacent properties. Higher boating restrictions in Crystal River are for manatee safety, the safety of people and the environment as a whole.
Jacksonville waters do not have any
no-entry zones. The St. Johns River does have a 300-foot buffer along the coastline that requires boaters to maintain a speed of 25 mph or slower. The restricted area begins where the Trout River meets the St. Johns north of Downtown and extends to the Main Street Bridge. Signs along the St. Johns River mark manatee zones, which are regulated by the local, state and federal government. Speed limits and boating laws can be enforced with fines by any law enforcement agency.
Duval County was identified by the state as one of 13 counties with a high death rate of manatees. To aid with state efforts, researchers at Jacksonville University's Marine Science Institute were contracted in 1993 by the city to help gather data and create a Manatee Protection Plan. The program, led by JU marine research scientist A. Quinton White Jr., has helped the local manatee population by collecting data and even rescuing manatees.
To get an estimate of the manatee population, FWC conducts a yearly synoptic survey by air and land. Finding and counting manatees is not easy, and weather conditions must be just right to spot them. In winter months, manatees are drawn to warmer waters like those around power plants, as well as canals and natural springs, making them easier to find.
In 2012, they were unable to conduct the synoptic survey due to weather constraints. "The current synoptic survey provides a minimum count of manatees but does not provide a population estimate," according to FWC. As the knowledge of manatees increases, so has the population count. The synoptic survey reported a total of 5,077 manatees in 2010, followed by a count of 4,834 manatees in 2011.
"There are areas used by manatees regularly or seasonally throughout the county [Duval]," said Carol Knox, administrator for the FWC manatee program.
Knox explained that the coldest temperature that manatees can withstand is around 68 degrees. Jacksonville is more of a seasonal place for manatees in comparison to places like Crystal River, where warm waters draw them in.
Gerry Pinto, JU associate marine research scientist, explained that the local manatee population has increased slightly, but it is a cycle. He pointed out the main causes of manatee deaths are contact with watercraft, undetermined, perinatal and cold stress. Pinto said it wouldn't be prudent to down-list the manatee at this time because of increasing watercraft deaths and habitat threats.
Other places like Sea World in Orlando play an important role in manatee rescue and rehabilitation in Florida. Sea World's Animal Rescue Team is on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In March 2012, FWC rescued a 900-pound manatee that was experiencing cold stress in Jacksonville's Goodby's Creek. This manatee, who was named Goodby, was transported to Sea World. After months of rehabilitation, Goodby was returned to this area, released in October 2012.
Scars caused by boating accidents have become a way of identifying manatees. An educator at Sea World explained that one of its rescued manatees has been nicknamed Lacey because of the scars shaped like laces running up her back. Lacey and other rehabilitated manatees can be seen at the park's Turtle Trek exhibit.
Visual scars also help identify manatees in the wild. The U.S. Geological Survey Project, FWC and Mote Marine Laboratory maintain a photograph database, the Manatee Individual Photo Identification System (MIPS). Photos of manatees with unique marks are entered into this system, allowing researches to track their locations and even deaths.
The future of the manatee is uncertain, but government agencies, Jacksonville University, Sea World, Save the Manatee Club and other Florida groups are learning more about tracking and providing safer conditions for manatees. One of the greatest threats the marine mammals face is contact with people, so education is these groups' greatest weapon.
"This shouldn't be happening," Tripp recalled about the moment she dedicated herself to the cause of manatees. "I'm going to keep this from happening."