This is becoming an annual summer encounter – manatees in (near) the Intracoastal Waterway of Pensacola Bay area. They have been before, it is not uncommon for them to be seen at Palafox Pier Marina, but in the last few years groups of five to nine manatees have been spotted drifting along the shorelines and hanging around docks in Gulf Breeze and the Perdido Key area.
I cannot say what this means but we are not alone with these new visitors along the Gulf coast. There are enough manatee sightings in the lower portions of Mobile Bay that manatee signs have been placed along Magnolia River and a manatee watch hotline has been set up at Dauphin Island Sea Lab. There are at least 40 resident manatees in the Wakulla River. And now, at least in the last two years, small groups have been seen in our area. Concerned whether these manatees were returning to southwest Florida for the winter during the red tide, there were plans to tag some of them – I am not sure if that was done or not.
So, what does this mean for us?
Well, your first thought is the concern over boat strikes. The manatee has actually been protected by Florida law since 1893. Their numbers have increased to 6600 animals and so their status has been changed from endangered to threatened. That said, they are still protected by both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
According to an FWC report, in 2018, 824 manatees died in Florida. The top five causes were (1) Natural causes – 27%, (2) Undetermined – 20%, (3) Watercraft – 15%, (4) Perinatal death – 14%, and (5) Unrecovered – 13%.
There were 17 deaths reported from the Florida panhandle. Wakulla (7), Franklin and Escambia (3), Bay, Gulf, Okaloosa, and Walton (1).
Cold stress was the #1 cause of death (7) – Bay, Escambia, Franklin, Okaloosa, and Walton
Followed by boat strikes (4) – Wakulla (2), Escambia (2)
Unrecovered (3) – Franklin, Gulf, and Wakulla
Undetermined (2) – Wakulla
Perinatal (1) – Wakulla
Natural (1) – Wakulla
So far, in 2019 there have been 259 manatee fatalities. The top five causes were (1) Watercraft – 25%, (2) Undetermined – 24%, (3) Cold stress – 15%, (4) Unrecovered – 13%, and (5) Natural – 13%
In the Florida panhandle there have been four deaths so far. Bay County has had two due to cold stress and Wakulla has had two – one was unrecovered and the other was “other” but human related.
So, statewide watercraft are still a big concern. Two of the three deaths in Escambia were boat related. The manatees tend to stay out of the boat channels, so it is recommend boaters remain in the navigable channels while heading to a destination and, when leaving the channel to reach that destination, go idle speed and have a lookout.
Manatees have actually benefitted the management of invasive hydrilla in the Wakulla River. FWC no longer has to treat it – the manatees are eating it all. Pensacola Bay is currently experiencing a bloom of epiphytic (attached) drift algae on the seagrass beds. Maybe, just maybe, the few manatees we see will consume as much algae they can.
I can understand the concern some boaters may have with manatees in the area. However, they do provide some benefits and are the highlight of the day for any local or visitor who may see them. We should welcome them and do what we can, within the law, to keep them safe. If you spot a manatee, please report it to the Dauphin Island Sea Lab hotline: 1-866-493-5803. Or email firstname.lastname@example.org.