Centuries ago, the manatee was a victim of mistaken identity. The creature was once believed to be a mystical woman of the sea, first discovered by Christopher Columbus on his trek to America. Though, today, the manatee is recognized as a sea cow, who grazes on aquatic grasses in the oceans. Currently, there are three species of manatees, including the Amazonian manatee, the West Indian manatee, and the West African manatee. These grass grazing mammals have been seen eating for up to seven hours a day. When they reach adulthood, they can range around ten feet long and weight between eight hundred and one thousand two hundred pounds. The life span of a manatee is quite long, peaking at sixty years, due to their lack of natural predators.
Importance of Manatees
Manatees are responsible for maintaining increased levels of coastal blue carbon in shallow marine environments. It is an effective method of storing carbon and preventing it from being released into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide. The seagrass possesses the capability of capturing the carbon through photosynthesis and store it within the biomass and sediments of the environment.
This species is pertinent in sustaining a healthy ecosystem. By consuming the grass found in the seagrass beds, they are able to keep it healthy and keep it short in length. If the grass is not maintained it would continue to grow and could obstruct the waterways.
Due to the large intake if vegetation by the manatees, they make for efficient fertilizers. After digesting the plant matter, it is released back into the waterways and fertilizes the copious aquatic plant species.
Manatees have been classified as a threatened species as of the year 201 2, when they were requested to be altered from an endangered species. Even though manatees have no natural predators in their habitats, there are ample threats that decrease their populations.
- Boat collisions. The species is susceptible to collisions due to their slow speed and increased buoyancy. Their common habitat is in shallow water, therefore it is difficult for them to dodge boats.
- Habitat loss and degradation. Manatees reside in warmer waters in the winter, because they are unable to sustain themselves in cold waters for an extended period of time. Warm water habitats include natural springs and artificial warm waters made from energy centers. Therefore, there are protections placed on natural springs to conserve the area and allow access for manatees during the colder weather.
- Human harassment. Manatees provoke interest in countless individuals through the forms of manatee tours and snorkeling trips. Snorkelers should be passive and controlled in their interactions with manatees, in order to decrease stress levels in the animals. A diver is not allowed to chase a manatee, rather allow the desired animal to come up to them and explore their curiosity.
- Fishing gear entanglement. Entanglement is a worldwide issue for numerous species, and efforts are being enforced to decrease the amount of gear entering the global oceans. Initiatives are also being taken to remove as mich fishing debris for the oceans as possible, to avoid it from negatively affecting the surrounding species. The manatees’ slow nature and large size allow them to become entangled in shallow nets and fishing gear, and increasingly difficult to remove.
Red tide. The red tide in Florida is responsible for the significant amount of deaths to the manatee population each year. The toxins from the algae are absorbed through the skin, inhaled when they come up to breathe, and the toxins attach to the plants they consume. All these factors combined ultimately lead to the death of the manatee populations.
In order to support healthy populations of manatees, the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 were put into law. The state of Florida enforces additional protection for the manatees under the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act. In order to protect the species, individuals can abide by speed zones while boating, avoid feeding the manatees, and properly dispose of trash.
Written and photographed by Kayla O’Donnell