Pandemic and more boats have not been good to Florida manatees

Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute’s Dr. James Powell is this week’s Florida’s Fourth Estate guest

They are as synonymous with Florida as flamingo’s Manatees or as they are sometimes called, sea cows, love the tropical weather and warm waters of Florida.

Clearly, the manatees have been here longer. Fossil remains of manatee ancestors show they have inhabited Florida for about 45 million years.

On this weeks edition of Florida’s Fourth Estate, News 6 anchors Matt Austin and Ginger Gadsden speak with Dr. James Powell of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute.

Powell shares his knowledge of these gentle giants and tells us how the pandemic has likely had an adverse affect on them.

By some estimates there are about 13,000 manatees on the planet with about half of those living in the southeastern U.S.  There are believed to roughly 6,000 of these unique creatures in Florida.  A pretty remarkable number when you consider at one point, according to US.. Fish and Wildlife Service, the population was down to around 1,200.

Right now, the biggest threat to these animals is people and it seems we’ve been a danger to manatees for a long time.

“Believe it or not, manatees were once hunted for food by aboriginal people and then actually in the 1800′s were hunted for sport ... and in the 1800′s there was a state law that was passed protecting them,” Powell said.

It appears the long push to save the manatees which began in 1972 is working.  So much so the manatees status has been downgraded from endangered to threatened. They are still protected under the Endangered Species Act but are no longer considered in imminent danger of extinction.

While manatees really have no natural predators, the biggest threat remains humans. That is especially true during the coronovirus pandemic.  Why?  One of the most popular socially distant recreational activity is boating. While boating is good for those who are feeling cabin fever during the pandemic, it has not been good for manatees.

Powell explains, “People were using their boats more and we think that more manatees were injured and killed by boat strikes.”  He adds there is no way to know for sure right now because due to covid the state cannot go out and perform a necropsy to determine the actual cause of death.

Even before COVID-19 manatees and man were a bad combination.

“Now practically every manatee out there has a non-lethal injury, a scar where it’s been hit by boat. And of course we know many manatees are actually killed by watercraft both large and small but then there’s a whole series of secondary threats where they are crushed in locks and dams or they will find themselves up these culverts and so forth, like you said they can’t turn around,” Powell said.  “Or entanglement in fishing gear and like crab traps and this like that will either weigh them down or twisted around them or cut off their circulation.”

We asked him about one manatee we had been tracking in the news.  It was seen with a bicycle tire around its midsection.

“We had seen it in Blue Spring,  we had actually seen it up in north Florida and I think even Georgia,” Powell said.

He said the manatee was elusive so it was difficult to get to it and remove the tire.

Then comes the part this either ironic or just plain sad.  Powell tells Matt and Ginger, “Believe it or not it was hit by a boat that actually partially cut the tire off.  It was eventually able to come off.  By the time it came off it had already embedded in the skin and the flesh of the manatee but it should heal up.”

For those who love those sweet faces, manatees are more than just eye candy.  They are  actually vital to keeping ocean’s ecosystems in balance.  Manatees are herbivores or plant-eaters.  They can eat 10- to 15% of their bodyweight in vegetation. So a 1,000 pound manatee would likely eat between 100 to 150 pounds of food a day.

So if they are basically vegan, why are manatees so fat?  It turns out, it’s not only rude to call them fat it is also inaccurate.

They are a tropical species so they don’t need body fat to keep them warm. Researchers say a large percentage of the manatee’s body is taken up by the gut tract which contains the stomach and intestines. Let’s all offer a collective apology to the manatee.

It also turns out these guys can swim like Michael Phelps especially during the summer months.   Powell says it’s not uncommon to find them in both South and North Carolina. In fact, he says, “We’ve actually had them go as far north as Cape Cod but then they return to Florida during the winter time like snow birds.”

Florida’s Fourth Estate looks at everything from swampy politics to a fragile environment and even the crazy headlines that make Florida the craziest state in the Union.

Ginger Gadsden and Matt Austin use decades of experience as journalists to dissect the headlines that impact Florida. Each week they have a guest host who helps give an irreverent look at the issues impacting the Sunshine State. Big influencers, like Attorney John Morgan, renowned Florida journalists and the scientists protecting Florida’s ecosystem, can often be found as guests.

Look for new episodes every Friday on iTunes, Stitcher or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.

Listen to the full episode of Florida’s Fourth Estate on iTunes here or on Sticher here.

About the Authors:

Ginger Gadsden joined the News 6 team in June 2014 as an anchor/reporter. She currently co-anchors the 4 p.m. 5:30 p.m. and the 7 p.m. newscasts.

Emmy Award-winning anchor Matt Austin joined the News 6 team in June 2011 and has been the evening news co-anchor since December 2013.