Manatee Deaths Spike across Florida; Watercraft of All Sizes Pose a Threat to the Marine Mammals in Florida Waters

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Byline: SHAKAYA ANDRES

At least one manatee is dead as a result of a watercraft injury in Julington Creek this year.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, there has been a rash of manatee deaths across Florida in the past two months. FWC reports show watercraft are responsible for most of the deaths that have occurred since May, and the cause of one manatee death is undetermined because the body was too decomposed; the causes of the other two deaths are still being determind.

All together, seven manatees have died.

The threshold has been tripped, according to Gerry Pinto, an associate research scientist for the Jacksonville University Marine Science Research Institute who surveys manatees traveling through the St. Johns River. He surveys by flying over the river to get a head count of the manatees passing through Duval County. His research is then reported to the FWC.

Five manatee deaths in one calendar year is the threshold before the FWC gets involved in the matter. When the FWC becomes aware, a letter is sent out to a number of agencies including the city of Jacksonville, Department of Environmental Protection, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Army Corps of Engineers, Florida Inland Navigation District and the Water Management District. They meet to come up with a plan to get a grasp on the issue, which may include suspending marine construction permits, said Pinto.

The last spikes in manatee deaths occurred in 1999 and in 2002, and Pinto said maintenance dredging could be factor in why so many deaths have occurred this year. The dredging project has caused an increase in boating activity in the river. The other factor is boaters who don't adhere to manatee protection zones and have the misconception that their boat is exempt from causing harm to the delicate animals, Pinto said.

"It doesn't take a big boat to kill them," he said.

Manatees can be found throughout rivers, springs and shallow costal waters of Florida and nearby states. According to the FWC, they are mammals that surface to breathe about every four minutes and can stay underwater without coming up for air for approximately 20 minutes when they are resting. That's where the problem comes in, Pinto said.

"It's the air-breathing part that puts them in harm's way," Pinto said.

On average, manatees are approximately 10 feet long and weight about 1,200 pounds; however, they can grow to 13 feet long and weigh 3,500 pounds. And even though the mammals are very large, they are still not noticed at times by boaters. As a result, Pinto suggests boaters wear polarized glasses to reduce glare from the water and help them see the manatees. He said boaters should also watch for mud patterns and ripples in the water to spot the animals. …