Make way for manatees! That was the message coming from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) yesterday, with the establishment of new manatee protection zones in the state’s Flagler County. The move is an effort to protect the marine mammals in the summer months, when they are most likely to be found in the Intracoastal Waterway in Flagler County, and when increased boat traffic presents a greater risk of injury. And so from May 1 through Sept 7 (once the signs are posted), 2.7 miles of the 18.6 miles of Intracoastal Waterway channel will become slow zones.
The conservation measure aims to improve manatee protection while limiting the impact on local businesses and boaters. Kipp Frohlich, leader of the FWC’s Imperiled Species section, said of the new measure, “In summer, when the new manatee protection zones are in effect, the time needed for a boater to travel the entire length of the Intracoastal Waterway in Flagler County will increase by about 15 minutes.”
Defenders works to protect manatees from fast-moving boats, and has been advocating additional slow speed zones in dangerous areas such as Flagler County since 1997. Florida representative Elizabeth Fleming testified in support of establishing the zones, reminding commissioners yesterday that the state manatee management plan they adopted in 2007 identified addressing manatee-boat strikes in Flagler County as a priority action.
“With more and more boaters using the Intracoastal Waterway in Flagler County, these areas have become increasingly dangerous for manatees,” she said. “We’re pleased that FWC Commissioners voted to establish the protection zones and make these critical areas safer for the marine mammals.”
The Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1983, and is the only refuge created for the purpose of protecting manatees.
BREAKING: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today announced the establishment of a manatee refuge in the waters of Florida’s Kings Bay that will expand protections for manatees at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.
The new rules designate most of Kings Bay as a slow-speed area, limit high-speed activities in a popular summer water sports area, provide temporary no-entry areas and allow for expansion of “manatee sanctuary” areas where waterborne activities would be prohibited on especially cold days to shelter manatees. The regulations also ban chasing or pursuing manatees, disturbing or touching them while they are feeding or resting, and separating a mother and a calf.
Elizabeth Fleming, Florida representative for Defenders of Wildlife, said, “Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge is the most important wintering site for manatees in northwest Florida and one of the best places to see manatees in the entire state. By adopting these new rules, the Fish and Wildlife Service has taken a first step towards helping the refuge better serve its purpose—to safeguard this vulnerable marine mammal. However, without the removal of the dangerous high-speed water sports zone, manatees and people will continue to be at risk in Kings Bay.”
Manatee deaths reached a record high of 766 in 2010, followed by the death of over 450 animals in 2011. Nearly 400 of these died from exposure during an extended period of cold weather.
Due to its naturally occurring warm water springs, Kings Bay, Fla. has been increasingly popular among wintering manatees. But despite the existing network of sanctuaries and other protections in Kings Bay, it remains a very dangerous waterway as manatees are hit by fast-moving boats and harassed by tourists wanting to interact with them. Having flexibility for managers to increase the area and duration of warm-water sanctuary areas will help ensure that manatees in Kings Bay will survive cold winters.
YOU DID IT! Defenders supporters generated almost 54,000 comments in favor of stronger protections for manatees in Kings Bay. Thanks for all your help!
Manatees are known to aggregate in warm-water outfalls at power plants on cold winter days, and those in the area didn’t waste any time in flocking to this site—check out some amazing footage below of the gathering. (Hint: watch until 0:47 to see some synchronized sea cow swimming!)
Loss of warm-water habitat now poses the greatest long-term threat to manatee survival. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) reported last week that a cold-related die-off of manatees in early 2011 contributed to the high numbers of deaths for the species for the year. Scientists predict cold weather will continue to be a problem for the manatee population over the next few decades when aging electric power plants will be shutting down. The FPL plant itself was demolished last year, but the power company is required to warm the water when it falls below 65 degrees until it completes construction of its new natural gas facility in 2014.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working on an emergency rule to expand protected areas for Florida manatees, creating a refuge that includes all of Kings Bay in Crystal River. The rules will ensure the sea cows will have greater access to critical warm water areas during the winter months and address public concerns associated with local, wintertime manatee viewing activities. Learn more about the Kings Bay proposed rule.
Manatee Awareness Month is underway! And this week, the gentle giants begin their annual migration to warmer waters, where they’ll spend the winter months. Highly sensitive to cold, these marine mammals head for the heat once the thermometer drops below 50 degrees (68 degrees below the surface).
Florida manatees aren’t the only ones enjoying the south seas, and fast-moving boats continue to be a major threat to these endangered animals. 2010 was a deadly year for manatees, with a total of 83 killed in collisions with watercraft. This year promises to be equally unlucky, and by November 4, at least 77 of the animals had met a similar fate.
Fortunately, with manatee season comes safety measures. From now until March 31, when manatees return to their summer habitat, wintering hot spots such as those in Kings Bay, Florida (popular due to its naturally occurring warm water springs) are designated “manatee sanctuaries.” In these areas, many waterborne activities are prohibited, making them safer for the hundreds of manatees gathering there. Soon, these much-needed protections may get a boost — a rule being considered by the Fish and Wildlife Service would allow for national wildlife refuge managers to increase the size of the protected areas to accommodate manatees if need be, and make all of Kings Bay a manatee refuge.
To kick off manatee season, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others are hosting a public open house at Three Sisters Springs this Saturday. Three Sisters is one of seven manatee sanctuaries in Kings Bay, and the only place in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge to view manatees from the land. Participants will have the chance to watch gathering manatees from the new boardwalk while hearing about what the future holds for Three Sisters Springs. (For Floridians looking for more information about the event, contact Ivan Vicente, US Fish and Wildlife Service, at 352-563-2088, ext. 211.)
In the meantime, there are lots of ways to reduce the risk of collisions with manatees. Boaters and personal watercraft operators should scan the water near or in front of their vessels and look for the signs that manatees are close by, including swirls resembling a large footprint, a repetitive line of half-moon swirls, a mud trail, or a snout or tail breaking the water’s surface. Remember to keep vessels in marked channels and wear polarized sunglasses for better viewing. Most importantly, always obey posted boat speed zones. Moving slow gives boaters and manatees alike more time to avoid one another, and may save one of these slow-moving mammal’s lives.
See manatees moving gracefully through their watery home! Watch video footage provided by our friends at the Save the Manatee Club.