In the 1970s, there were estimated to be only a few hundred manatees left in Florida. Thanks to protections, by 1991 their numbers had reached roughly 1,200, and this year marked the third in a row that more than 6,000 manatees were counted through aerial surveys.
This recovery has motivated the recent change in status from “endangered” to “threatened.” Many groups have voiced their opposition to this change, citing concerns that manatees could now potentially not receive the same level of protection they enjoyed when they were considered “endangered,” but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has emphatically stated that the protections in place for manatees will not decrease with the change in status.
At the National Aquarium, we’re committed to tackling the issues facing endangered species and educating our guests about the importance of wildlife conservation efforts. Regardless of the manatees’ official status, it’s imperative to continue to protect them—and other animals considered endangered or threatened— and to lessen human impacts on their populations.
Manatees have no natural enemies in the wild—most threats to their survival are caused by humans. Watercraft collisions are the leading human-caused threat to manatees, and they’re often fatal, due to the proximity of manatees’ lungs to the dorsal surface of their bodies.
Another serious threat to manatees is the loss of the warm-water habitat that is essential to their survival. Commercial and residential development has reduced natural warm-water springs in Florida that manatees depend on during the colder winter months. Algal blooms, which are often the result of human activity, are also harmful to manatees.
Humans can help protect these gentle giants in the following ways:
- Observe from a distance. Harassment by humans is a serious issue for these marine mammals, especially resting manatees and mothers nursing their calves.
- Support the protection of natural warm-water springs. The preservation and restoration of natural warm-water springs in Florida is vital for the continuation of long-term manatee recovery.
- Abide by boating speed zone regulations. To reduce the number of manatee boat strikes, it’s essential for boaters to respect speed zone regulations in designated areas. It’s also important for boaters to remain vigilant to avoid manatees—only manatees’ nostrils are visible when they breach the water to breathe, so they can be hard to spot.
Though manatees primarily live in Florida, they can be found off the coast of Maryland and the rest of the mid-Atlantic in the summer months as they travel north, up the East Coast. If you spot a manatee locally, please call the National Aquarium’s animal rescue hotline at 410-576-3880.