The Gulf Coast of Florida is home to a mammal rarely found anywhere else in the world: the manatee. These creatures are slow moving omnivores that are loved by locals, but despite their popularity, their numbers are dwindling. Manatees are difficult to spot in the water and tend to hover around surface water level, making it incredibly easy to slice their backs with boat propellers. Manatee injuries such as these have been an issue since casual boating was introduced to the Gulf Coast, but since the pandemic began, the focus on staying away from others and engaging in activities with immediate family has skyrocketed. This has resulted in a massive uptick in boat rentals and boating activity in the Gulf Coast area, causing a possibly catastrophic impact on the local manatee population.
The Center for Biological Diversity states that in the past five years, manatee deaths from water crafts have doubled. This accounted for a 10% decrease in the overall Florida manatee population. In fact, in the past few years, collisions between boats and manatees were so common that some scientists could identify specific manatees by their unique scar markings. This data is from 2019, meaning 2020 data is yet to be finalized, and the impact of the pandemic has yet to be analyzed. What we do know is that the amount of boats that have gone out to manatee waters have increased since March 2020. Recreational boating in the area is reported to have gone up by as much as 30% starting last summer. In a 2020 survey, 70% of boat dealers in the United States reported an increase in sales. Rentals have gone up by as much as 65%. Manatees come up for air approximately every 20 minutes, and as more boats are speeding by, it increases their chances of being killed or at least significantly injured. Additionally, many people are reportedly disobeying boating laws. Speeding has become more common, and the faster a boat goes, the less time a boater has to recognize the imminent collision.
Florida summers are known for fierce and unpredictable storms, causing massive current changes in the Gulf of Mexico. Manatees avoid these severe changes in current by residing in the intercoastal area, as do many huntable fish. As fish are valuable to both professional and recreational fishermen, boats enter the intercoastal and cause extensive traffic, which in turn causes further issues for manatees. Fishing is a common recreational activity for families, and can be done with social distancing on boats. Therefore, intercoastal traffic may have increased over the course of the pandemic. During the winter months, manatees are still heavily reliant on the intercoastal. Due to insurance reasons, boat rental companies, which saw a massive spike in business during the pandemic, only allow rental boats in the intercoastal due to the calmer water and less chance for damage to the boat. In turn, inexperienced boaters using rentals may run over manatees because of their inability to spot them.
Manatees are very social animals, and will interact with people given the opportunity. Floridians are known for providing these animals with lettuce and other snacks from off the sides of their boats. Once a manatee has been exposed to hand feeding, they start to trust boats and humans as food sources, meaning they will be encouraged to approach boats and marinas. This increases the amounts of possible injuries and deaths from collisions with boats. It also may confuse the manatee, and impact their regular scavenging for food if they are fed by humans several times. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to regulate families on boats providing manatees with food. It is already illegal to feed manatees, but as the Department of Natural Resources states, it is a frequent occurrence with significant impacts. Approximately 2% of manatee deaths in 2019 were from poaching, vandalism, or entrapment. When fed, manatees become more trusting of humans and therefore more susceptible to these dangers.
In the current political climate Florida finds themselves in, manatees are in a dire situation. Florida is run by a governor who tends to lean away from science. The state’s governor, Ron Desantis, has made a point of reducing COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings and business capacities, making beach and boat access almost back to pre-pandemic normalcy. But with that relaxed outlook, it clears the way for out-of-state tourists. Rental boats are more popular than ever and are being piloted by vacationers from landlocked states with little to no boating experience, nor knowledge of manatee habitats.
Manatees may become injured from an increase in Spring breakers flocking to a less restricted state, and an increase in recreational fishing as an attempt at a social distancing activity. At the end of the day, boating as a family unit does protect humans from the spread of COVID-19, but due to the uninformed nature of the boaters, it does nothing but cause havoc on another living creature. Manatees are protected by multiple laws, including the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act, but we do not yet have protections against boating in the Florida intercoastal regions.
Connolly, K. (2020, September 29). Boat rentals increase during Coronavirus Pandemic. Retrieved from https://spectrumlocalnews.com/nc/triangle-sandhills/news/2020/09/28/boat-rentals-increase-during-coronavirus
Fernandez, B. (2021, March 03). Manatees suffer more injuries with more boats in the water. Retrieved April 04, 2021, from https://nbc-2.com/news/2021/03/02/manatees-suffer-more-injuries-with-more-boats-in-the-water/
Florida Manatee deaths up 20% as COVID-19 THREATENS RECOVERY. (2020, June 29). Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/29/manatees-facing-increased-threats-during-the-pandemic
Gadsden, G., & Austin, M. (2021, January 14). Pandemic and more boats have not been good to Florida manatees. Retrieved April 04, 2021, from https://www.clickorlando.com/news/local/2021/01/14/pandemic-and-more-boats-have-not-been-good-to-florida-manatees/
Increased boating During COVID-19 pandemic is HARMING marine life on THE SUNCOAST. (2020, September 13). Retrieved from https://www.mysuncoast.com/2020/09/13/increased-boating-during-covid-pandemic-is-harming-marine-life-suncoast/
Manatee rescue. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://myfwc.com/research/manatee/rescue-mortality-response/rescue/
Platt, J. R. (2020, July 16). The shocking number of Florida Manatees killed by Boats last Year • The Revelator. Retrieved from https://therevelator.org/2019-florida-manatees-killed/
Rescue and rehabilitation. (2021, February 04). Retrieved from https://www.savethemanatee.org/manatees/manatee-rescue-and-rehabilitation/
Tsai, K. (2021, March 19). Boat sales took off during the pandemic and now dealers can’t keep up with demand. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2021/03/19/boat-sales-took-off-during-pandemic-dealers-cant-keep-up-with-demand.html