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Florida’s Endangered Manatee
Belonging to the Sirenia order of mammalians, manatees are the common name for a large, gray or black air breathing water mammal. Sometimes called a sea cow, the manatee looks somewhat like a hippopotamus. Adult manatees have large bodies averaging ten feet in length and weighing between 440 and 1300 pounds. Manatees have a small head with a straight snout having a bristly mustache on the upper lip. Paddle-like forelimbs are used to move through the water.
Manatees live in fresh, brackish, or salt water and roam with small herds somewhat like a family. Six to eight hours a day is spent grazing upon seaweed and other marine plants. Their slow metabolism reduces the energy requirements, thus they move slowly through the water. Because of their size, manatees have few natural enemies. Humans are the primary threat to the health and safety of the manatees. After a 12-month gestation period, the female manatee may give birth to a single, pink calf about once every three years. A mother may nurse her calf from her teats located under her pectoral flippers.
What is an Endangered Species?
An endangered species is any plant or animal that is in danger of extinction (dying off). Presently as many as 34,000 plant species and 5,200 animal species around the world are in danger of extinction. Evolution of species accounts for a normal process in extinction, (natural predators and climate changes that the species cannot adapt to), but most causes of species extinction are from habitat destruction, pollution, increases in human population, resource consumption, and urban development.
A plant or animal must be identified by a criteria put forth by the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Before they can be identified, thousands of species become extinct each year.
The current global extinction rate is estimated at about 20,000 species per year, exponentially greater than the background extinction rate. Many biologists believe that we are in the middle of the greatest mass extinction episode since the disappearance of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. (Encarta msn.com)
Why Protect the Manatees?
The extinction of one or more species may affect the ecosystem and cause irreversibly damage. For example, when sea otters near the northern Pacific Rim were hunted almost to extinction in the 19th and early 20th centuries, sea urchin no longer had a major predator. This caused the sea urchin population to increase drastically. Once the sea urchins ate the kelp and other seaweeds, the rich underwater ecosystem became barren. When the U.S Marine Mammal Act of 1972 set forth protective laws, sea otters were reintroduced to the area. The kelp and seaweed forests were restored.
Humans depend upon the ecosystems to provide food, water, and clean air, as well as many medicines and products that are provided by biodiversity. It is imperative that we protect and save the lives of endangered plants and animals.
Typically manatees are found in the tropical and subtropical waters of North and South America and Africa, and are not native to the coasts of Florida. The Florida manatees are sub-species of the West Indian manatee brought to the coasts of Florida in the 1700s. Then called sea cows, they were kept in netted warm water corrals and raised as a food source. When these mammals were released, many died from water temperatures that were too cool, and from boating collisions. Manatees are herbivores, and eat a variety of sixty or more sea grasses and plants. Conservation efforts are supported by the fact that manatees clear plant-clogged river channels used for irrigation and transportation. Therefore, manatees are protected by local and national legislation in every coastal county in Florida. The State strictly enforces speed restrictions in manatee habitats to protect the rare sea mammals from boating collisions. Still 26% of manatee deaths are caused by collisions with watercrafts.
According to Save the Manatee Club, Manatees are currently facing total extinction. In 1996 almost 20% of the world’s entire manatee population died. Without intervention, the animal faces a high risk of extinction in the wild in ten or more years (The World Conservation Union, IUCN).
The main causes of manatee death are human-related such as harassment, poaching for hides, meat, and blubber oil, entanglement in Flood Gate or Canal Lock; habitat destruction; and deaths caused from fishing line, litter, vandalism, culverts and other man-made structures. Other causes of manatee death are natural causes such as cold water temperatures, stress, red tide, disease, and calving difficulties.
Harassment refers to pursuing, chasing, poking, prodding, grabbing, riding, and feeding manatees or giving them water from a hose. This conditions them to take food or water from people. Some people may use this opportunity to feed them dangerous non-food items or harm the manatee in some way. Harassment by boaters, divers, swimmers, and people fishing can force manatees to leave preferred habitat such as warm water refuges. Harassment can also lead to separation of mother and calf. Save the Manatee® Club supports passive observation (observing from a distance) as the only way to interact with manatees and all wildlife.
Jim Waymer reports that according to Florida government endangered manatees are dying at the rate of one per day. Marine patrol officer, Dennis Harrah, estimated in June 2000 that only 2,200 remained alive in Florida waters. Harrah has watched for 24 years as the manatees drift toward extinction.
Law enforcement has issued 67 citations and 37 warnings for boaters who ignored the manatee zones in Brevard County during the challenge period. Of those numbers, 42 of the citations and 27 of the warnings were issued to county residents who were aware of where the speed zones are located.
In spite of fines and penalties harassment by humans continues to be an issue. Hundreds of boaters protested a judge’s ruling and the new manatee slow speed ruling by sounding their horns (a form of manatee harassment) while cruising through the Barge Canal which provides access from Merritt Island to the Banana River and the Indian River Lagoon. These boaters felt that the new laws were jeopardizing their safety and violating their rights without actually protecting the manatees.
Protection of endangered species is vital to the continued existence of harmony in our environment. There is something every human can do to insure that our planet continues to thrive. The process begins with the help of citizens, but must be enforced by federal, state, and local laws. Every creature on earth has a vital role in the ecosystem, and contributes to the well being of our planet. Consider helping our environment by:
Avoiding restricted or protected manatee areas
Never touching or feeding a manatee
Reporting tagged manatee to authorities
Reporting abuse and harassment
It takes money, compassion, and a willingness to sacrifice human conveniences to protect and keep endangered species alive. By obeying the protective laws and by donating time and money into this worthy cause, the manatee will survive, and future generations will continue to enjoy interaction with these gentle, affectionate, and harmless sea creatures.
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