This past winter was a challenge for manatees wintering along the east coast of Florida. Hundreds of manatees died in this region and it was so significant that under the Marine Mammal Protection Act it was designated an unusual mortality event (UME), prompting an ongoing investigation and response.
Preliminary data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) revealed that a reduction in food availability, mainly seagrass, appears to be the primary cause. Though the problem has not been resolved, now that the water has warmed up, manatees have naturally dispersed and have been able to find better food sources.
Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens played an active role with individual manatees considered to be associated with the UME, by helping to rescue and rehabilitate them in our Manatee Critical Care Center. We had multiple animals come in very thin, and our extraordinary veterinary and husbandry teams saved some from near starvation.
One of our Zoo’s mantras is “living well with wildlife.” The work we do to help manatees aligns with that, however there are things we individually commit to do year-round to protect manatees, along with other wildlife. This first includes doing all we can to keep our waterways clean, like following instructions for lawn fertilizer use and disposing of garbage properly.
Boaters have amazing opportunities to enjoy and share the habitat manatees live in, so they of course need to follow all posted slow speed zones. Since manatees are still at risk of being struck (even when we follow all boating rules), wearing polarized sunglasses will help to see the circular “footprint” and/or snout of a manatee to steer clear of them in the water. Fishermen should always manage and dispose of their line properly when enjoying the great outdoors too.
Whether you happen to see a manatee take a quick breath while you are walking along a waterway or you plan a trip to paddle amongst these gentle giants, seeing them in the wild is unforgettable. Remember these tips to help protect manatees in the wild so we can observe them in their habitat for years to come.
Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens’ Manatee Critical Care Center is an acute care, rehabilitation facility that provides life-saving medical treatment to rescued manatees. The manatee rescue and rehabilitation program is the Zoo’s largest regional conservation initiative, caring for 32 manatees since the Center opened in 2017.
Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, along with other zoos, aquariums, non-profit organizations, and state and federal agencies, comprise the Manatee Rescue & Rehabilitation Partnership and work together to monitor the health and survival of rehabilitated and released manatees. Information about manatees currently being tracked is available at manateerescue.org. Florida manatees are a federally-protected threatened species, at significant risk from both natural and human threats. Exposure to red tide, cold stress, disease, boat strikes, crushing by floodgates and locks, line entanglement, and ingestion of pollution and debris are just some of the hazards facing one of Florida’s most iconic animals.
To report an injured marine mammal, call the FWC hotline at 1-888-404-3922 (FWCC) or dial *FWC on a cellular device.