Protecting Manatees and Florida’s Aquatic Ecosystems: A High Stakes Game of Jenga

By Dr. Katie Tripp
Director of Science & Conservation   

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Janice Nearing
Director of Public Relations
Phone: (407) 539-0990
E-mail: jnearing@savethemanatee.org

Opinion-Editorial
For Immediate Release: September 2, 2010

I’ve never liked Jenga, the game where wooden blocks are stacked to form a tower, then removed one by one until the tower collapses. In 2010, Florida’s manatees and aquatic ecosystems have been caught in a high stakes game of Jenga where we watched the events around us unfold, hoping the tower wouldn’t crash. The year started out with some positive news for manatees – a prolonged cold spell, coupled with good visibility, allowed researchers to obtain the best snapshot of the manatee population ever, and a record number of manatees were counted. This was good news in the weeks following 2009, a year in which record levels of manatee mortality were observed, including record numbers of watercraft, cold-related, and newborn deaths.

Unfortunately, in the weeks following the historic count, manatees began dying in unprecedented numbers, unable to withstand the extreme cold. In total, more than 300 manatees are believed to have died from this lingering event, shattering the previous record of 56 cold-related deaths. In addition, several dozen manatees suffering from cold stress were rescued around the state.

As spring arrived, manatees, still gaining strength after the tragic winter that also depleted populations of snook and stunned several thousand sea turtles, started falling victim to watercraft strikes. As of August 20th, 58 manatees have died from watercraft-related injuries statewide, and there have been a dozen manatees rescued after suffering watercraft strikes. Six of these manatees have survived their encounters and are still undergoing treatment at critical care facilities or have already been re-released. The boating community has a crucial role to play in ensuring that the number of manatee mortalities is minimized. In addition to prescribing to safe boating practices that reduce the risk to manatees, these individuals are often the first to see manatees in distress, and their timely reporting to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (1-888-404-3922) can save a manatee’s life. Without the full support of the boating community, another record year for manatee watercraft mortality is a sad possibility.

Then, of course, on April 20th, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill began in the Gulf of Mexico, first claiming human lives, then evolving into a slow motion disaster that stole human livelihoods and ravaged the Gulf ecosystem. We know that birds and sea turtles are among the species that fell victim to the oil, but we are still unsure of the long-term damage to the food web and our coastal habitats. While manatees appear to have avoided any direct impacts from the oil that would lead to their rescue or death, only time will tell what long lasting damage was done to their home.

What we all should learn from these events is that Mother Nature can pack her own punches, causing devastating losses to some of our most treasured species through events like the cold. While we can’t control the weather, we can increase the resiliency of our species and our coastal environments by sparing them the consequences of our bad decisions. We can significantly curb our water use to safeguard groundwater and surface water supplies that form the springs and rivers in which manatees live. As waterway users, we can put manatees first, and perform our high-speed activities in areas where manatees are unlikely to be present. Regardless of our speed, we can always be alert and aware of our surroundings to protect manatees, seagrass beds, and our fellow boaters. This support is always needed, but it is particularly imperative this year, after so many manatees have died from the cold. Finally, we can find ways to cut our personal consumption of fossil fuels and tell our elected officials that we want a clean energy future that will safeguard our coastal ecosystems and coastal economy. With these commitments, we restore stability to the Jenga tower.

People sometimes ask why it is important to protect manatees. The answer is this: by protecting manatees and their habitat, we protect all of the things that we need and love about Florida – our freshwater springs that provide recreation and the majority of our drinking water supply; our ocean, Gulf, bays, and estuaries that drive our economy; our seagrass beds that help make Florida “The Fishing Capital of the World,” and many other elements that we might take for granted. So, if the manatee’s Jenga tower is falling, you can be sure that ours isn’t far behind, and that’s not a game I want to play.

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Dr. Tripp has been Save the Manatee Club’s Director of Science and Conservation since May of 2008. She received her Ph.D. in Veterinary Medical Sciences from the University of Florida, where she conducted research on manatee physiology.


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