Florida Manatee
© Jan Reyneirs

Florida Manatee

Collisions with Watercraft

Slow-moving manatees often cannot avoid the speed boats and other watercraft that frequent the Florida waterways they call home. As a result, propellers and boat hulls inflict serious or mortal wounds, and most manatees have a pattern of scars on their backs or tails after surviving collisions with boats. Defenders is working to reduce this cause of death and make waterways safer for these unique marine mammals.

The Problem

Over the past five years alone, more than 80 manatees have died from watercraft-related incidents each year. The highest year on record was 2009, when a devastating 97 manatees were killed in collisions with boats over the course of the year, not to mention those that were seriously injured but went unrecorded. Population scientists believe that unless this cause of death is controlled, the manatee population will not recover.

How We’re Helping

Defenders has been advocating for slow speed zones to protect manatees since 1997, and many efforts have been successful.  We have spoken with city, county, state and federal officials, participated in working groups, submitted written comments and testified at public meetings.

Since 2004, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has approved new manatee protection rules for three counties in Tampa Bay. The agency also reviewed and updated speed zones in Sarasota, Broward, Charlotte, Lee and Duval counties. In October 2005, the Hillsborough County Commission adopted mandatory manatee protection slow-speed zones in the Cockroach Bay Aquatic Preserve that previously had been voluntary. In 2012, speed zones were established in the Intracoastal Waterway in Flagler County. Defenders of Wildlife worked to see these rules through, providing comments on how to make them effective devices to save manatee lives.

Thanks in part to Defenders’ advocacy efforts—the National Park Service designated slow-speed zones to protect manatees in Everglades National Park. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also improved protections for manatees at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge by establishing the Kings Bay Manatee Refuge, designating most of Kings Bay as a slow speed area and improving refuge managers’ abilities to protect manatees from boaters and swimmers wanting to interact with them during cold weather.

Today, through public outreach and education programs, we continue trying to make Florida’s waters safer for manatees. We talk to boaters about ways they can minimize the danger of hitting these often hard-to-see mammals. We also advocate for additional slow speed zones in areas that remain dangerous to manatees, such as western Pinellas County.

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Sad record was set in Florida last year: the most manatee deaths—429—ever in state waters.
Florida Manatee, © Joel Sartore
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It was a tough year for Florida manatees. At press time in December, the death toll stood at 796—more than double the 2012 total, making 2013 the deadliest year on record.