Manatees deserve protection even if not seen most of the year

As winter approaches, sightings of manatees in Florida’s rivers and waterways increase. The species of aquatic gentle giants has been a tourist attraction for years, and efforts to save it from extinction have been under way. Yet the efforts are often undermined by one flaw of humankind: They forget to protect what they do not see every day.

As manatees migrate inland to warmer waters in the colder months of the year, the animals are more easily observed by humans. They either move into human-inhabited areas entirely or have to cross through them in order to get to their winter habitats.

The species is, of course, protected year-round. But even in areas where signs are posted on waterways telling boaters that manatees are likely to be in the area, boaters often ignore the signs.

The animals, unable to defend themselves against boats that ignore posted signs and speed limits, swim close to the surface of the water and are often severely injured by boat propellers. The number of deaths incurred through such injuries alone is considerable. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 81 out of 325 manatee deaths in 2001 were related to accidents with water vehicles.

All in all, there are an estimated 3,000 manatees in Florida’s waters, but that number has been questioned, as many groups intend on increasing the protection of the species.

The Save the Manatee Club is trying to increase awareness about the endangered species, at least during the month of November, by declaring the entire month “manatee awareness month.”

But not all measures to protect the species have been undertaken — there have even been attempts to undermine the protection the species has received. Last year the status of “endangered species” was questioned. The federal government intended to downgrade the severity with which protection of the species was to be enforced, but thankfully it was averted.

The animals’ habitat has been damaged by urban sprawl and runoff. This not only creates problems for the manatee, but also a myriad of other species.

For the manatees to survive, such problems will have to be addressed. Even if manatees are out of the spotlight for the rest of the year, they remain one of Florida’s natural treasures. Protection should occur sooner rather than later, but the sad but simple truth remains that once the population of a species drops below a certain point, the survival of that species cannot be guaranteed.