The cold winter of 2009-10 has resulted in unprecedented numbers of manatee deaths in Florida.
Through Feb. 12, there have been more than 300 deaths from all causes. Of these, 167 have been attributed to cold stress. Another 116 deaths have been labeled as undetermined or not recovered, many of which were also likely caused by cold stress because of their location and timing.
Based on a synoptic survey of 5,076 manatees in January 2010, this year's deaths so far represent a loss of 6 percent of the entire state's population. These tragic numbers come on the heels of last year's record mortality. Incredibly, in the last 14 months, at least 729 manatees are known to have died in state waters. We can only hope that 2010 does not bring red tide or another record year for manatee boat strike deaths, as these events could result in hundreds more manatee deaths.
Although cold-related deaths are considered a natural cause, the events of this winter highlight the vulnerability of our state's manatee population, and reinforce the importance of safeguarding winter habitat and minimizing human-related threats to this species. There are a number of actions that everyone can take:
If you live in Florida, contact your legislators and ask them not to cut funding for the manatee critical care treatment program, part of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's budget. This money helps Florida's critical care facilities provide vital emergency treatment for manatees injured by boats, entangled, orphaned, or suffering from cold stress or red tide toxicity. Without funding, these manatees would needlessly suffer and die.
Florida's springs provide natural winter habitats for Florida's manatees. Reduced spring flows caused by increased human demand for water have decreased these available habitats, while access to others has been reduced or eliminated by weirs or dams. One such area is Silver Springs in Marion County, the largest of Florida's springs. Manatees have lost access to this spring due to the Kirkpatrick dam. Restoration of the Ocklawaha River and removal of the dam would restore access to the spring. Unfortunately, this restoration would be delayed at least another 50 years if the Jim King State Reserve bill passes. Ask your legislators to support the Florida Springs Protection Act this session (SB568) and vote against the Jim King State Reserve bill (SB466/HB695).
Look for ways to decrease water use. Every drop of groundwater or surface water we use is a drop we take away from the manatees. The area hit hardest by this winter's cold weather was the Everglades. Historically, warm groundwater exits the aquifer through seeps and small springs that provide a refuge to manatees during winter. However, development and canal dredging have altered water flow over the last 100 years, decreasing the availability of these seeps and leaving manatees at risk.
If you boat, always be on the lookout for manatees. Careful boaters can prevent manatee injuries and deaths. If you see an injured or dead manatee, immediately contact FWC's 24-hour hotline at 1-888-404-3922. Manatees can't afford another year of record watercraft deaths.
Manatees and Florida's environment need your support and voice. These simple actions can make a life-saving difference for Florida's endangered manatees.
Dr. Katie Tripp is director of science and conservation for the Save the Manatee Club. She received her doctorate degree in veterinary medical sciences from the University of Florida, where she conducted research on manatee physiology.