The gentle manatee has been important to Crystal River for years, bringing tourists and other visitors and helping drive tourism on the Nature Coast. We have recognized the fragility of the species and made efforts to restore habitat so manatees visiting here have adequate food supplies, but in other areas of the state there are significant problems that threaten the species.
Manatees face threats from many sources, including boat props and collision with watercraft. But one of the most significant recent threats they face is loss of an adequate food supply, particularly on the Florida east coast. There, pollution has led to a reduction in sea grass, which is a primary manatee food source.
Last year, more than 1,000 manatees, or nearly 15 percent of the total population died. This is a significant and threatening loss. For example, 10 years ago there were 453 manatee deaths, or less than half the losses last year. At the current level of deaths, the species faces possible extinction.
Our legislators have recognized this fact and are proposing the funding of a new manatee recovery center to join other rehabilitation facilities. This is a good thing. But it is not a solution. It is a bandage on a gaping wound. It will help, but it will not solve the problem
While prop cuts and boat collisions will continue to be a problem, the major reason more manatees are dying is because they are starving to death. Pollution has reduced the seagrass they depend on for food. This is the issue that we must solve to protect our manatee population.
The situation is so severe that in some areas wildlife officials have taken the unusual step of feeding manatees, and three conservation groups have taken steps toward filing a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency over water quality issues that have led to a loss of manatees along Florida’s east coast
Here in Crystal River, we have taken great steps to clean up Kings Bay and restore sea grass beds. This program is one that needs to be exported and put into place in other areas.
Legislators need to examine programs like those that have led to the cleanup of Kings Bay to determine what is working, and seek to replicate them across the state. Crystal River has shown that cleaning out the bay and other waterways and replanting eel grass can help restore manatee habitat.
Also, the federal government needs to return the manatee to the list of endangered species. In 2017, when it appeared manatee populations were growing, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service upgraded the manatee from endangered to threatened. This needs to be reversed to restore the additional protections and funding for manatee protection programs.
The loss of manatees can be reversed, but it will take efforts from the public, and from our legislators. We encourage both.