FORT MYERS, Fla. — A favorite in our Florida waterways is the manatee. But our sea cows could once again be placed on the endangered species list as a lack of food sources and water quality issues become more apparent. And with Gulf water temperatures in the mid-70s, we could start to see manatees moving upriver soon.
“If the water is around 70, 68 to 70, they can’t live in that for very long,” said Ranger Rob Howell. “So, right around 75, they are going to start noticing and start preparing to do their migration to warmer waters.”
For manatees, when the water drops to around 70 degrees or less, they begin to suffer from cold related illnesses, which leads to congregating in groups around heat sources like the power plant in Fort Myers. But with water quality in the river declining that several years, the food sources for manatees like sea grasses have declined in massive numbers.
“Southwest Florida has lost around 95% of the sea grasses,” said Howell. “Florida as a whole has lost about same amount all around. But starvation right now is the number 1 killer of the manatee.”
And with the lack of food, Howell says the manatees are stuck between two tough decisions.
“They kind of have to decide,” said Howell. “I am going to push through the cold and stay feed out here where the food is, and the sea grass is. Or I am going to go up the river to the unnatural heat source.”
The lack of sea grass has sparked efforts by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to feed manatees to make up for the lost food sources in recent years. But, with each individual manatee needs about 100 pounds of food per day, that is not sustainable. And with lack of food, some manatees take extremely unnatural actions to avoid starvation.
“Where they will crawl up on the shore banks, where water goes to the lawns, and they will eat off people’s lawns out of necessity,” said Howell.
And despite being down listed from endangered to a threatened species list in 2017, nearly 3,800 manatees have died since according the FWC, including nearly 500 so far this year. That has prompted the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service to review petitions these past few months to again place manatees as endangered. And upon that review, the Service announced the petitions action may be warranted.
“There is just a lot more that can be done when we are protecting an endangered series,” said Howell. “And the water quality in Southwest Florida is declining so rapidly, that more help that it can get the better.”
U.S Fish and Wildfire Service will be conducting an in-depth status review over the next year to determine the next actions needed including if a new endangered listing is in fact warranted.