Small Changes Could Add Up To Big Wins For Manatees

Two people sitting in a kayak observing three manatees swim by while following proper manatee etiquette, including keeping their paddles out of the water and maintaining a respectful distance.
Kayakers observe from a distance as manatees feed in the Weeki Wachee River. Photo ©David Schrichte.

By Kim Dinkins, Senior Conservation Associate

Florida’s 2023 legislative session concluded May 5, and it was a record year for land conservation funding. This year’s budget allocates over $1 billion toward restoration and conservation projects—the largest amount in state history. Most of this funding will support land acquisition or conservation easements for the Florida Wildlife Corridor and Everglades programs. All of this is good news for manatees since undeveloped lands are less likely to contribute to water quality degradation and natural shorelines provide better manatee habitats.
The barrier islands of the Indian River Lagoon have been designated as an “Area of Critical State Concern,” which will provide another layer of oversight for new development proposed on the islands. A program to develop, test, and implement technologies for successful seagrass restoration was authorized as a partnership between the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), Mote Marine Laboratory, and the University of Florida, with recurring funding of $2 million. These efforts are intended to lead to faster and more resilient restoration of the seagrasses in the lagoon to counteract the devastating seagrass losses over the past decade, which resulted in death by starvation of over 1,000 manatees between 2020 and 2022.
Additionally, FDEP is developing a new permit to allow expedited seagrass planting projects to move forward without some of the red tape that has historically held up such projects. We are monitoring this effort and are hopeful that it will result in the intended outcome.
Recently, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission approved the Weeki Wachee Spring Protection Zone, the first large-scale protection of its kind in Florida. The designation means that boaters (including paddle craft users) will no longer be able to anchor, beach, moor, or ground their vessels along the shoreline or within the river, although visitors and homeowners can still swim and wade in the waterway. The intent is to reduce erosion along the shoreline and the degradation of the submerged vegetation. Although the measure is aimed at protecting the river’s shore and bottom, we expect this will also help to reduce manatee harassment during the cold winter months, which is a major concern in certain areas of the spring run.
Lastly, the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge has agreed to a small, but potentially impactful, change to the special use permits (SUPs) that are issued to ecotourism operators in the park. Historically, the SUPs included language to “encourage” passive observation of manatees, but now it reads that they will “practice” passive observation. Although not a huge difference, we hope that this will help to promote a culture of better practices moving forward.
Finally, our conservation team is working to raise awareness of year-round manatee presence in the Mosquito Lagoon on Florida’s east coast and partnering with other organizations to successfully restore the Ocklawaha River to create additional manatee habitat, along with other initiatives throughout the state to protect manatees and their home.

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