The Florida manatee, designated the state marine mammal in 1975, is among the state’s most popular native animal. Manatees are often called gentle giants. They’re slow-moving, peaceful creatures that tend to flock toward human activity in search of warmth. However, they are not having a good year. More than 1,000 of the sea mammals have died so far in the last eleven months, ten per cent of their current population. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates the state’s total manatee population at only 7,250.
There are many culprits for the large number of deaths. Thousand pound Manatees can eat up to 100 pounds of food a day. Seagrass, their primary food source, has been decimated by algal blooms that killed tens of thousand acres of the grass and left the mammals to starve to death. These algal blooms are fueled by leaky septic tanks, lawn fertilizers, agricultural runoff and other human pollution. Boat strikes are also a cause in their deaths.
There is some action being taken. In October, Congressman Vern Buchanan introduced with Congressman Darren Soto (D-Fla.), the Manatee Protection Act, H.R. 4946. It would officially upgrade the West Indian manatee from “threatened” to “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Upgrading their designation under the ESA will not only require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to refocus their attention on manatee population rehabilitation, but also allow for increased federal resources including more funding and personnel.
Other actions include setting up a joint team of State and federal wildlife agencies to manage the emergency response and expand the space available for rehabilitation. There are also plans being drawn up for a pilot program to do some supplemental feeding of the manatees but that will need approval as it is illegal to feed manatees according to federal and state law. Food must also be tested to see what manatees will accept.