An estimated 619 manatees died between 1 January and 25 December 2020, an increase of 27 deaths from 2019, new figures from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) revealed. The greatest number of deaths – 163 manatees – was recorded in Brevard county, east of Orlando.
Some 90 manatees were killed by boats and other watercraft, either from propeller wounds, impact, crushing or a combination of the three.
Another 14 creatures died in separate human-related incidents, either due to vandalism, poaching or entrapment in pipes and culverts. These deaths can also be attributed to complications from entanglement in ropes, lines and nets, or ingestion of fishing gear or debris.
Ten manatees were crushed or asphyxiated in incidents involving floodgates or canal locks. About one-third of the “sea cows” died around the time of giving birth, due to cold stress or of natural causes, including from toxic red tides.
The cause of death for about 90 manatees was undetermined, typically due to an advanced stage of decomposition when they are found.
Although 15 per cent of manatee deaths were boat-related, that number is likely higher. More than 200 manatee deaths in the past year did not receive a necropsy due to Covid pandemic restrictions.
Martine de Wit, from the FWC’s marine mammal pathology lab in St Petersburg told Florida Today that during a stay-at-home order in the state last spring, staff could only respond to incidents involving living animals.
Orlando Weekly reported that manatee deaths jumped by 20 per cent in April to May 2020 compared to the previous year, largely due to reckless boating.
Florida wildlife officials have proposed new boating safety education requirements this year due to the impact on threatened manatees. All three manatee species – West Indian, West African, and Amazonian – are listed as vulnerable to extinction.
The sunshine state has nearly 1 million registered boats, and thousands of out-of-state tourists rent boats every year. Current requirements means that only boaters under 32 years old must complete safety education.
However more than two-thirds of boating accidents involve people at least 36 years old. Florida also has the highest number of boating-related deaths for humans in the US.
The proposed legislation would require boater safety education for anyone piloting a boat. If passed by the state legislature, the new requirement would go into effect in 2023.
“This important boater safety legislation offers an essential tool for reducing the deaths of both people and manatees,” said Sarah Gledhill, from the Center for Biological Diversity.
“If all boaters learn the value of proper navigation as well as slowing down and being more cautious we can do a better job of keeping Florida’s waterways safer for everyone.”