Manatees in the Midst
Are Florida's iconic and endangered marine mammals truly on the rebound?
by Nick Jans
On a gusty autumn day in Montana's Glacier National Park, I hiked toward the Great Divide through a world shimmering with yellow leaves, burgundy-colored berries and silvertipped bears. First came a female and yearling cub in a forest of subalpine fir, then a loner nosing its way into a serviceberry thicket. A pair of young adults rested high on a limestone ledge. Farther along, a straw-colored female appeared by a turquoise lake. Her focus was huckleberries; for the little cubs at her heels, it was nonstop wrestling. By afternoon, I'd tallied more than a dozen grizzlies. Three days later, I covered the same route and never saw one.
On an April morning on the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge on Florida's north-central Gulf coast, a crowd mills—more than 150 wetsuit-clad snorklers finning in limpid water. Occasionally, a swirl breaks the surface, and an excited knot converges around a gliding, gray shape: one of several hundred manatees that have wintered in this 72-degree, spring-fed protected area.
The creatures, a few weighing over a ton, flow serenely past their admirers like celebrities on Rodeo Drive; some seem to enjoy the attention, and detour to court gentle touches and scratches along their scarred, leathery flanks. They're used to the commotion. Tens of thousands of visitors flock to Crystal River and other Florida refuges each year, hoping for a little schmooze time with these endangered, iconic mammals.
A few minutes ago I was part of the throng and met a manatee, whiskered nose to mask. Now I sit aboard the dive boat, shaking my head—awed by my point-blank encounter, and bemused by the almost surreal nature of the setting. Like most areas key to manatee survival, Crystal River lies enmeshed in a web of burgeoning coastal development: upscale homes and marinas, resorts and malls, all spreading with no apparent end in sight. Local waterways are crisscrossed by thousands of watercraft; lined by docks; tainted by runoff, subject to increasing human draw-down of vital freshwater springs. Millions of people live within a two-hour drive of all of Florida's critical manatee habitat.
And yet, somehow, almost miraculously, we have these enormous wild creatures surviving in our midst—a population estimated to exceed 3,800. But our ongoing expansion into their habitat begs the question: Are manatees, an endangered species whose numbers seem to be rising, truly on the rebound?
The manatee has been a conservation priority of Defenders' Florida staff for two decades. Among other accomplishments, our staff worked with federal and state officials to help establish 17 federal refuge and sanctuary areas and many additional state speed zones and safe havens for these iconic marine mammals.
Defenders was also instrumental in preventing the downlisting of the manatee by the state, and in convincing Florida officials to revisit their flawed imperiled species listing rule. Our work will help ensure that the manatee receives the state protections it needs.
Conserving important manatee habitat is central to Defenders' current work. Defenders and our allies are pressing federal officials to revise the manatee's 30-year-old critical habitat designation by more specifically identifying areas necessary for manatee survival. We are also advocating for the protection of natural springs and collaborating with industry representatives and government officials to keep manatees safe while warm-water outflows from energy plants are suspended or ended.