Responsible Recreation is Needed to Prevent Manatee Deaths

Op-Ed by Anne Harvey, JD, MS
Acting Director of Conservation and Advocacy,
Save the Manatee Club

Released: January 30, 2020

A living manatee bears scars from a watercraft collision.
A living manatee bears scars from a watercraft collision.

Once again, last year was the worst year on record for manatee mortality from watercraft strikes, as has been the case each year since 2016. The sharp increase in watercraft mortality has coincided with the U.S. Department of Interior’s decision to downlist the manatee from endangered to threatened status, raising the question of whether there is an erroneous perception that the species is now recovered. Over the same time period, greater development and human population growth in Florida’s coastal regions has resulted in more boats on the water, as well as habitat fragmentation. Manatees must now traverse more populated areas to reach feeding and breeding grounds and warm-water refuge sites. As manatee habitat has declined and human habitat has expanded into once-wild areas, there is an inevitable increase in interspecies interaction.

Eco-tourism has also rapidly grown. Well-meaning manatee lovers are jeopardizing the animals’ safety through unintentional harassment and failure to practice passive observation. There are dozens of incidents daily of people posting pictures to social media of themselves chasing down manatees, petting manatees, floating kayaks on top of manatees, swimming between mothers and calves, feeding manatees, and giving them water. One swimmer was so close to a manatee that the animal could not swim without bumping into her or other tourists. The swimmer misinterpreted the manatee’s attempts to navigate around her as “hugging.” Manatees becoming acclimated to human presence can be disastrous, as it makes them more likely to approach and be struck by watercraft.

Swimmers and divers surround a manatee.
Swimmers surround a manatee, which constitutes harassment. Well-meaning manatee lovers can jeopardize their safety by acclimating manatees to humans, unintentionally separating a mother and calf, or keeping manatees from warm water sources they need for survival in the winter.

Florida’s cherished natural resources are being loved to death. Plastic bags and debris clog waterways and clutter once-hidden springs. And the state’s beloved marine mammal has suffered. Harassment in springs separates mothers and calves and drives manatees out of their sanctuaries into boat traffic or into cooler waters where they can suffer cold stress, which can also be fatal.

At Save the Manatee Club, we are often asked, “what can we as citizens do?” Responsible boaters, kayakers, eco-tourists, and other recreational users are the best advocates for educating friends, family, and others on the water about respectful manatee practices. They are also the key to finding injured, orphaned, or harassed manatees in time to rescue and rehabilitate them. Thanks to responsible recreators, there has also been an increase in manatee rescues.

For information on reporting injured or sick manatees as well as manatee protection tips, go to: And if you see an injured, dead, tagged, or orphaned manatee, or if you see a manatee being harassed, call 1-888-404-3922, email or text, or use VHF Channel 16 on your marine radio.

It is wonderful to see manatees in the wild, to be surrounded by them and to admire them. But let us make sure that we are respecting them. Keep manatees safe by keeping them wild.


Anne Harvey is the Acting Director of Conservation and Advocacy for Save the Manatee Club, where her work focuses on water quality and quantity and endangered species issues. She has her JD from Georgetown Law and her Masters in Aquatic Environmental Science from Florida State University.