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What You Need to Know About Manatees: Why They Are Under Threat and How You Can Help

In the spirit of Manatee Awareness Month – which is running all this November – we at OGP have decided to profile these gentle giants, and shine a spotlight on some of the urgent issues they are facing today.

Manatees, with their large, slow-moving bodies, distinctly “squashed” faces, and fondness for grazing on large quantities of sea grass, have long been referred to as “the cows of the sea.” (They are, in fact, distant cousins of the elephant.) They can be found in various locations around the world, including the Amazon basin, the west coast of Africa, and the U.S. state of Florida.

While they may not be the most elegant sea creatures around, their role in maintaining the biodiversity of our oceans is crucial, and we should all be concerned about the safety and well-being of these creatures.

It is disturbing, then, that recent trends have indicated that the manatee population is declining rapidly. In our recent article on manatee preservation efforts, we reported that the Save the Manatee Club (SMC), based in Florida, have recorded the deaths of 770 manatees this year alone. The SMC have described this as the worst year on record.

So What’s Going Wrong?

Here is a quick guide to all the ways in which manatees are being threatened today:

  • Ship strikes – The curious, gentle, and slow-moving nature of the manatee can often lead to its downfall. Violent collisions with the propellers of marine vessels are, sadly, a common cause of death for these animals, especially young calves. Manatees have also been drowned or crushed to death by canal locks and flood control structures.
  • Habitat LossAccording to the SMC, “habitat loss is the most serious threat facing manatees in the United States today.” The organization believes that the high rate of manatee deaths in 2013 was partly caused by the knock-on effects of an algae “superbloom” in 2011 that destroyed more than 47,000 acres of sea grass.
  • Poaching – African manatees are under threat because of human poachers, who hunt them for their meat and hide.
  • Fishing – Manatees have occasionally been killed as a result of becoming entangled in fishing gear, especially crab pot float lines. They have also been known to swallow discarded pieces of fishing equipment while feeding. This equipment – which may include hooks, metal weights, string, or monofilament line – may clog the digestive system of the manatee and cause it to slowly starve to death.
  • Red tide – These microscopic algae blooms produce brevetoxins that are fatal to the central nervous systems of the manatee and other sea mammals. An outbreak of red tide in Lee County, Fla., was directly responsible for the deaths of 276 manatees earlier this year.

What Can I Do to Help?

Earlier this year, the SMC, in a collaborative effort with Florida-based technology corporation, EarthNC, launched a free smartphone app called Manatee Alert. This app helps boaters identify specially designated manatee protection zones and slow their speeds accordingly.

Dr. Katie Tripp, SMC’s director of science and conservation, says, “Since many manatees inhabiting Florida bear the scars from past encounters with boats, use of the Manatee Alert App can go a long way towards preventing such injuries and deaths.”

Users will also be able to submit sightings of injured, distressed or harassed manatees to the appropriate conservation agencies. So if you live in Florida, and are concerned about what to do if you happen to spot a distressed manatee, this is definitely a handy app to download!

If you would like to make a financial contribution to some of the dedicated people who are working to save the manatees, the SMC are running a special Adopt-A-Manatee promotion, as well as an annual membership scheme, with packages ranging from $25 to $500. Smaller purchases of items such as signs or banners may be made via their website, by emailing, or by calling 1-800-432-JOIN.

Defenders of Wildlife offer a similar manatee adoption program, with prices ranging from $15 to $45. All proceeds from these sales will help fund their conservation efforts.

Happy Manatee Awareness Month!

Images Source: Save the Manatee Club