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  1. Opinion

Save the manatees ... by boating safely | Editorial

A group of manatees gather in a canal where discharge from a nearby Florida Power & Light plant warms the water in Fort Lauderdale. [Associated Press (2010)]
A group of manatees gather in a canal where discharge from a nearby Florida Power & Light plant warms the water in Fort Lauderdale. [Associated Press (2010)]
Published Jul. 19

Floridians need to quit running over their state animals. Boaters have already killed 89 manatees, the state marine mammal, so far this year. Drivers have run over 10 panthers, which school children named the state animal back in 1982. Whether at the helm or behind the wheel, Floridians need to take more care instead of giving new meaning to the phrase "threatened" and "endangered" species.

The Tampa Bay Times' Craig Pittman reports that manatee deaths by boat are nearly certain to set an annual record even before summer is over. The number as of July 9 is just 33 short of the record — for the entire year.

With Florida becoming ever more crowded on land and sea — there are more than 1 million vessels plying Florida's waters and more than 21 million people living here — more conflict and more collisions are perhaps inevitable. But there are other factors. In 1967, manatees were included on the very first endangered species list and remained there for 50 years. Then in 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service changed their classification to merely "threatened."

Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, is an avid boater who told Pittman that "people think there is less need to be vigilant" now when boating through places where manatees are known to frequent. Boat-related manatee deaths didn't top 100 before 2016, when they hit 106. Then, in 2017 they rose to 111. Last year, the number hit the soon-to-be-broken record of 122.

For boaters the lessons are obvious: Abide by no-wake zones, and when on open water be on the lookout for manatees. They often can't localize the sounds, and they can't get out of the way in time. When Snooty the famous manatee died at 69 two years ago, he had no propeller cuts on his body because he had spent his life in captivity. That is seldom true of manatees in the wild. But it is blunt force trauma — boats ramming manatees — that accounts for most of the deaths by boat. Simple physics dictates that the faster the boat, the more danger to the manatee. So, no matter how manatees are classified, it's up to boaters to treat them as endangered whenever a power boat is around. It will help that the state wildlife commission has announced plans to step up enforcement.

In the case of the Florida panther, deaths aren't on a record pace yet, but with only 200 remaining in the wild and with threatened habitat, every death is a grim statistic, and being hit by a car is the leading cause of death. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says 26 panthers were run over and killed last year.

Floridians honor both the panther and the manatee with specialty license plates that help pay for research. But lest they become just a symbol bolted to the back of a car, Floridians should also honor them by taking care when driving or boating through their habitats, by pushing for a Florida Wildlife Corridor to provide enough space for panthers to thrive, by ending pollution that contributes to toxic blue-green algae and Red Tides that threaten marine life and by managing development sustainably so that we don't lose the flora and fauna that makes Florida a special place to live.

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