Between Wind and Water: The Vulnerable Florida Manatee

Like many of Florida’s springs, the eelgrass and other native vegetation at Manatee Springs has been overgrown and displaced by toxic green algae, seen ensconcing a manatee searching for food as Joe Guthrie observes from above. The proliferation of algae in recent years is attributed to increased pollution in springsheds and over pumping of the aquifer that has reduced spring flows. Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition: Everglades Headwaters to Gulf Islands #Glades2Gulf 
Expedition Day 20 - Suwanee to Horshoe Beach 
Manatee Springs

Joe Guthrie and Florida manatee

This mission of the Florida Wildlife Corridor is to protect a functional ecological corridor throughout Florida for the health of people, wildlife and watersheds. Learn more at FloridaWildlifeCorridor.org.   Photo by Carlton Ward Jr / CarltonWard.com As Florida’s human population has expanded, conservation lands have become increasingly isolated from one another, causing problems for numerous species of wildlife. The Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition shows that a statewide wildlife corridor is still possible and important for the future of people and wildlife.  The Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition team includes executive director Mallory Lykes Dimmitt, conservation photographer and project founder Carlton Ward Jr. and biologist Joe Guthrie whose Central Florida black bear research was the inspiration for the campaign. Beginning January 10, 2015, the team embarked on 925-mile trek to highlight a wildlife corridor from Central Florida to the Gulf Coast, through the Big Bend, and across the Panhandle all the way to Alabama.  The original Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition was a 1000-mile trek through peninsular Florida, from the Everglades on South Florida to the Okefenokee Swamp in southern Georgia.//photos by Carlton Ward, Jr.

"We had a manatee named Georgia. She was very popular and friendly—disgustingly friendly,” Wayne Hartley recalls. “You were supposed to stay away from the manatees, but you couldn’t stay away from Georgia. One time, a lady was having a problem getting up a ladder in the swimming area. Georgia swam over and gave her a boost. Another time, she reached up and grabbed somebody’s jeans and swam off with them.”

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“They’re just curious, looking for something to play with. I’ve seen them play tug-of-war with a shirt or towel. I’ve seen them play keep-away. I saw two or three of them playing with something—I swear it looked like a pair of pantyhose. They made sure the third never got it. The next day, he came and got it.” —Wayne Hartley

Hartley has been working with manatees for 37 years, first as a ranger at Blue Spring State Park, and now as a manatee specialist for the Save the Manatee Club. “They’re curious by nature. It’s part of their nature to explore. They’ll come up to docks, nuzzling around boats,” says marine mammal biologist Artie Wong. He worked for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and Save the Manatee Club for years before beginning work on his Ph.D. in Brisbane, Australia. “I don’t know any other animal like them.”

Back when Hartley started at Blue Spring, he knew most of these curious creatures by name. These days, he can’t keep up with all of them. “We try to keep track of the animals. Every year, I greet them as they come in, try to identify everybody,” Hartley says. “When I first came, there were 36 coming in, and in the past three or four years, there have been 450 or so. No matter how you look at it, there are more.”

He’s not the only one who’s observed this change. “We had a gentleman call who said he’s seen more manatees behind his home than ever,” says Nadia Gordon, a marine mammal biologist for the FWC. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has taken note, as well. In January, the organization proposed to reclassify the West Indian manatee—a species which includes both the Florida manatee and the Antillean manatee—from an “endangered” species to a “threatened” one, though they haven’t yet made the decision final. The Endangered Species Act (ESA), signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1973, provides for the conservation of endangered or threatened species and the conservation of the ecosystems on which they depend. Under the ESA, “endangered” means that the species is in danger of going extinct; “threatened” means it’s likely to become endangered.

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Dr. Quinton White is professor of marine science at Jacksonville University and consultant on manatees to the City of Jacksonville Waterways Commission. He and his team, JU’s Manatee Research Center (MaRCO), have been performing aerial counts of manatee population numbers for more than two decades. “Twenty-five years ago, I would have predicted that the manatee was going to go extinct in our lifetime,” White says. “When we started, the population numbers were around 1,000. We watched the numbers increase gradually to the point that, in May of this year, we saw 6,200—the most manatees we’ve ever seen on a single day count.”

Years ago, the aerial surveys were done 22 times a year. Due to cutbacks in funding, that number has been reduced to three a year. JU’s Dr. Gerry Pinto does most of the counting. “Typically, we fly in what’s called slow speed circling flight at about 1,000 feet altitude along the shorelines of the St. Johns River,” says Pinto. “They’re easier to see along the edges. That’s where their food resources are. They look like great big Idaho potatoes in a bucket of tea.”

After the surveys and data are collected, the team makes monthly reports to the City Waterways Commission on water quality, habitat mapping and environmental factors that can affect the animals. It’s clear there are still plenty of threats. “I’ve never met anybody who wanted to hurt a manatee,” White says. But humans are one of the animal’s biggest threats, whether intentionally or not. Back when Hartley named all his manatees in the waters of Blue Spring, he used their scars to tell them apart. Watercraft collisions—boaters unintentionally hitting manatees—are still one of the largest threats. This year, according to the FWC, watercraft collisions have already accounted for 65 manatee deaths in Florida. The total was 86 for the entire year in 2015.

“The numbers are higher than the five-year average. We’ve had 21 watercraft rescues this year and the average is 17,” Gordon says. “This is the most prevalent time of year.”

Manatee protection rules established by the FWC restrict vessels’ speed to protect the animals. In some areas, rules prohibit boats from entering entirely or restrict the types of activities that can be performed there.

“We don’t want them to become distressed by being surrounded by swimmers. It can really stress out the calves,” Wong says. Other threats include flood gates and canal locks, which can crush or drown the animal, algal blooms as recently seen in South Florida and habitat loss.

Manatee Springs State Park, Florida

“Last year, during the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, when we arrived in Crystal River it happened to be concurrent with a big cold front coming across the Gulf. So as the temperatures were plummeting, manatees were converging on the spring. Dozens were coming into the bay that particular week. We were doing some paddleboarding, and I’d paddle right above them and snorkel with them. It was an amazing opportunity to see them up close.” —Carlton Ward Jr.

“The biggest thing [I] worry about is habitat,” Hartley says. “If we keep destroying the habitat, the population is going to bump against a ceiling.”

Conservation photographer Carlton Ward Jr. agrees. The manatee is threatened by more than just direct causes. “The Florida Wildlife Corridor was inspired by black bears and the ways they move across landscapes. The Florida manatee is a similar creature. They’re moving 10, 15, 20 miles between the warm water springs and the places where there’s abundant grass to eat,” he says. “We have to maintain the connections. We have to keep the springs connected to the river connected to the estuaries connected to the Gulf.”

“We’re in a time where what we think is probably a mass extinction event is essentially being caused by human activities. There’s a concern amongst scientists and conservation biologists for not just marine mammals but the oceans and aquatic ecosystems,” Wong says. “It’s nice to see that the manatee population seems to be increasing, but we should be cautious in celebrating a victory considering we have these other threats looming at the moment.”

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“I’ve seen them eating grass off of lawns, drinking water out of hoses and coming straight up to a boat to take a look at you or your dog. Some people have grass that grows all the way down to the water’s edge. They like to try a lot of different types of vegetation. They won’t climb out of the water, but their heads will pop out and nibble on the grass. I’ve even seen them pop up and nibble on low-lying branches.” —Artie Wong

Scientists don’t yet completely agree on whether the proposed “downlisting” to threatened status is a good idea. “Even though the numbers have come back, the distribution is still pretty sparse. We’re talking about 6,200 manatees in the entire state of Florida,” White says. Still, he believes that they are no longer endangered. “There’s been a dramatic recovery. That number represents the minimum number of manatees we know are there. Some people disagree because they want to continue to protect the manatees, but protection will remain in force.”

He’s correct there; according to the FWS, “the manatee protection measures currently in place would remain in force if the species is downlisted from endangered to threatened. “Downlisting them wouldn’t change the manatee zone or the waterways,” Gordon says. “They would still be protected. The signs that are in the waterways, that would not change.”

Wong doesn’t quite see it that way. “I would definitely be cautious in saying that the population has rebounded and they should be taken off the endangered species list,” he says. “The proposed delisting from the Fish and Wildlife Service from endangered to threatened actually affects populations that haven’t shown increases in growth and still need to be under the endangered species classification, like the Antillean manatee.”

“People should remember that [downlisting] doesn’t mean they’re not fragile still,” says Ward. “They could be right back into endangered status quickly if we don’t take care of our waterways.”