Protecting the endangered Florida manatee
Mon, Jul 12, 2010 at 04:58 PM
By The Nature Conservancy
Despite its frequent coating of green algae and a face only a mother should love, the Florida manatee is a big-time celebrity. Sadly, the manatee—known as a gentle giant or sea cow—is also on the brink of extinction.
A record die-off of almost 200 manatees occurred after Florida’s January 2010 cold snap. And these beasts battle to survive even in a normal year. Despite federal and state efforts to protect the manatee, the future of this endangered species is far from assured.
Today the Conservancy has begun a freshwater spring restoration program that should increase the manatee’s survival odds by improving their access to warm wintertime retreatsat several Florida springs.
“If the manatee is to survive for future generations, it’s urgent that their freshwater and marine habitats be reconnected – right now,” says state director Jeff Danter.
“Florida manatees can’t survive in the cold; they may die when water temperatures drop below 68°,” says Steve Herrington, Ph.D., who directs the Conservancy effort. “Florida is the northernmost point of the natural range for these tropical marine mammals; they’ll migrate many miles to reach freshwater springs when in need of warmer water.”
Due to bubbling groundwater—many millions of gallons daily— Florida springs maintain a temperature in the low 70s year-round. They become destination resorts for manatees during cold snaps. But lately, some travel routes to the springs have become restricted by sediment build-up and other obstructions.
“We can’t control the weather, but we can and do support healthy manatee habitat and easy access,” Herrington continues. “The Conservancy has identified several Florida sites that are most in need of our help and will complete restoration over the next few years.”
Those of highest priority drain to the Gulf of Mexico, primarily in the Big Bend area of the upper Florida peninsula. See a video!
Conservancy projects will:
- Improve access to priority spring runs and their connection to rivers
- Reduce the impacts of dams, weirs and other man-made obstructions
- Decrease sediments that build up, making spring runs too shallow for manatees
Located off the Suwannee River in Levy County, Fanning Springs was given top priority in the manatee effort due to its serious problem with sediments and a low, floating state park dock that spans the entire run.
At Fanning Springs, an average 1,200–pound manatee has to first fight its way through sediment at the mouth of the run, and then shimmy under the dock. This is especially difficult during low-flow periods.
Although serious deterrents for the manatee, these problems are a fairly quick fix. The Conservancy is proposing to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Division of Recreation and Parks to coordinate sediment removal, modify the floating dock, and develop a new public dock in a less sensitive location.
The Conservancy will then observe wintering manatees at the spring; it hopes to follow a new calf and its mother to their summer home in the Gulf of Mexico. At nearby St. Martins Marsh in the Gulf, the Conservancy is also working to restore sea-grass beds—a primary food source for these slow-moving, vegetarian creatures.
Cold water and habitat destruction are deadly adversaries, but the playful manatee faces additional challenges:
- Run-ins with watercraft
- Canal locks and flood gates
- Human harassment
- Entanglement in fishing gear and traps
Florida’s statewide manatee count topped 5,000 in winter of 2010, however – an encouraging upswing that offers hope.
A generous Conservancy member’s donation was the springboard for the Conservancy’s manatee habitat protection project. And despite reduced budgets, state and federal agencies are eager to join forces and leverage Conservancy efforts.
A proud member of the state Springs Task Force, the Conservancy collaborated with its state and federal conservation partners to assign priority to those sites with both the most problems and the most importance to manatees.
Today the Conservancy is focused and taking action for the manatee. By working with partners, we hope to ensure that these gentle giants will reach their safe, wintertime habitats—and remain in Florida’s future. See a video about our springs restoration work to improve manatee habitat.
MNN is working with The Nature Conservancy to bring you state-by-state environmental information.
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