BY JACK SHORT – As more boaters make their way out onto the water again for fishing season, they risk contributing to one of Lee County’s least desirable legacies: disproportionately high manatee deaths due to watercraft strikes.
The early spring months, according to Ron Mezich, biological administrator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, are an important time of year for these marine mammals. When water temperatures in the remainder of the state surpass 65 degrees, the manatees leave their warm water aggregation sites, where they spend most of the winter. Those sites include springs and power plants.
“They’re more spread out,” said Mezich. “Boaters will need to be aware.”
Though there is no unfailing pattern from year to year, watercraft interactions can, for obvious reasons, spike during months when both manatees and boaters are on the move.
In 2013, for example, according to annual mortality reports published by the FWC, five of the 15 deaths that occurred because of watercraft in Lee County happened during the warmer months. In 2014, again in Lee County, 11 of the year’s 18 deaths (caused by watercraft) occurred in those warmer months.
In both cases, Lee County led the state in those deaths, accounting for 21 and 26 percent, respectively.
As the Beacon reported last year, manatee deaths caused by watercraft strikes in Lee County are among the highest in the state, usually rivaled only by Brevard County, which includes areas near and around Cape Canaveral. At least part of that trend is caused by the relatively large amount of usable (to manatees) water in Lee County.
So far this year (through March 20), Lee County has racked up five of the state’s 16 deaths, and that number may change sooner than later.
During the week of March 19, FWC reported that Lee County officers assisted with two manatee rescues.
According to the report, a biologist on the scene of the first rescue said the injury incurred by the nine-foot male was blunt trauma, believed to be related to a boat strike. A second, four-foot manatee was also removed and transported to the St. Petersburg Marine Mammal Pathobiololgy Lab that same day, though the report did not give the nature or cause of injury.
Mezich said boaters can take some basic precautions to avoid striking or killing manatees with watercraft.
Knowing how to spot them is key, and boaters can use polarized glasses to cut down on glare that makes the animals difficult to see, or even use a spotter when boats are underway.
Tell-tale signs include boils of water caused by manatees’ tails as they propel themselves, and their snouts breaching the surface as they breathe.
But manatees don’t always show themselves, and it can be helpful to be cautious in areas where they feed, such as grass flats and estuaries, or any areas with coastal seagrass, according to Mezich.
He also noted that slowing down in those areas has the added benefit of preserving the estuaries.
Manatees can move between fresh and salt water as well. Gary Morse of the FWC law enforcement department said that officers target certain areas from time to time but didn’t give details.
The state has manatee protection zones that go into effect during certain parts of the year to accommodate the animals’ movement. FWC Officer Stuart Spoede said there are at least two areas in Lee County where allowable speeds change during the period from April 1 through November 15 each year – near the Caloosahatchee River and Estero Bay – because of manatee movement and feeding patterns.
The FWC is currently reviewing the status of the manatee in order to make recommendations to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is considering a re-classification of the West Indian, or Florida, Manatee. They are currently included among federally classified “endangered” animals and may be “downlisted” to the “threatened” category.FWS representative Jim Valade said they hope to make a decision by the end of the year.
Mezich said the regulations matter in either case, and noted that though manatee populations seem to be rebounding, that may be because of measures like protections zones.
Valade added that this is a crucial time of year for the animals.
“When they’re leaving their winter sites … it’s a stressful time for these animals,” he said. “(They’re) trying to fill their guts again and they’re moving to different areas around Florida … (They’re) fatigued and stressed by the winter. They’re certainly very vulnerable at that time.”