After several years of steady improvement and good news for the federally endangered Florida manatee, a subspecies of the West Indian manatee, the species has faced sudden adversity in the last few months. A record number of manatees along Florida’s Gulf Coast have perished this year due to red tide, an irregular algae bloom which releases toxins that enter the manatee’s nervous system and paralyze the animal, causing it to drown. With over 200 casualties as a result of red tide on the Gulf Coast and another 80 mysterious deaths near Indian Lagoon on Florida’s Atlantic Coast, nearly 10% of the population has been decimated. Although biologists have reported that the red tide outbreak is officially over, it’s common to continue to see manatee deaths as the toxins from the algal bloom are absorbed into the sea grass that the manatees are eating.
And, red tide is just one of many challenges to manatee health. The April edition of National Geographic Magazine features Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, where warm water springs attract hundreds of manatees during cold winter months. The National Geographic article highlights the complex balance between conservation, recreation, and economics. A gentle giant, the manatee is a friendly and fascinating ambassador for Florida tourism, and manatee “swim-with” programs bring over 150,000 people annually from around the world to Florida’s “Nature Coast.” Boaters, kayakers, snorkelers and party barges often crowd small inlets for manatee viewing. As with all things, moderation is the key, and federal wildlife officials are tasked with striking a balance between ecotourism and education, and harassment of an endangered species. Nursery areas where cows loaf with calves, and resting areas, are cordoned off to allow the animals to retreat, and manatee education is one of the principal activities for refuge staff at Crystal River.
NWRA has been working on manatee conservation for a number of years at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, most recently by facilitating the protection of the 58- acre Three Sisters Springs property, which was permitted for development and sheltered five important warm water springs used by manatee cows with calves. NWRA led an effort along with the Friends of Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge Complex that involved a private landowner, local and national conservation groups, public and private funders, and local, regional, state and federal government agencies. In this case, the partners came together to protect and restore a property that can be an open space resource to the City of Crystal River, provide land-based viewing and education about Florida manatees, relieve some boat traffic, and help improve water quality in King’s Bay, an important Gulf Coast fishery. The agreement was considered a win not only for critically endangered manatees, but also for the tourism economy of Crystal River.
Between increasingly frequent red tide outbreaks, human encroachment and habitat loss, the endangered Florida manatee faces some rough seas ahead. However, many local support groups are working tirelessly with National Wildlife Refuges and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to find creative ways to increase protection and appreciation for Florida’s charismatic “sea cows.”