“Floridians need to quit running over their state animals,” said an editorial in the Tampa Bay Times, referring to the manatee. It seems like we’re seeing the return of the media’s tendency to single out boaters as the leading contributors to manatee deaths. While a lot more manatees were killed last year by red tide, it is however a good reminder for boat dealers and marina operators to emphasize to their customers that vigilance under way is always in order.
Sadly, if you read other recent articles, you’d think boaters were somehow out to get manatees. Nothing could be farther from the truth. No boater wants to hit or hurt a manatee. But what is calling media attention to manatees now are predictions that deaths will reach a record high this year.
To date, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, there have been 89 manatee deaths that experts are attributing to collisions with boats. Last year during the same period, the number hit by boats was just 65. But what’s really concerning today is that this year’s deaths are only 33 below the record high of 122 recorded last year, leading to the expectation that we’ll see a new record set before the end of the year.
Media reports never tell the whole story. For example, it’s important to recognize that the last official manatee count recorded more than 6,000 of the mammals now swimming in Florida. Nearly gone from Florida waters in the 1960’s, manatees got an early entry onto the Endangered Species List. Since then, manatees have recovered and are no longer endangered.
That doesn’t change the need for boaters to be on the lookout for manatees. It does, however, focus on the need to acknowledge that more manatees in Florida waters will result in more accidental collisions with boats.
Florida is the nation’s biggest boating state, with the number of registered recreational boats having surpassed 919,000. If you throw in commercial boats, the number crosses one million.
More manatees. More boats.
While that’s a prescription for more manatee-boat collisions, boating does not cause the majority of deaths. Last year, an extended period of cold weather and a bad run of red tide, especially along Florida’s Gulf Coast, added 702 additional deaths to the 122 from boats, for a total of 824.
Concern for the manatee over the years has resulted in manatee protection plans implemented in many areas of Florida. These have established myriad slow speed zones in hundreds of miles of waterways to give added protection to manatees. They’ve even triggered a moratorium on private docks and marina expansions in many communities.
Add to that stepped-up marine patrols and speed zone enforcement by the Wildlife Commission’s Division of Law Enforcement. “We strategically assign officers to patrol certain areas based on boating activity and manatee data,” said division director Colonel Curtis Brown in a news release.
Overall, manatees may have already generated more boating regulations than anything else that lives in the sea. Still, it’s incumbent on all Florida boating interests to obey the speed limits and participate in the protection of this unique mammal.