This fall, Save the Manatee Club urges residents and visitors of coastal areas to not feed, give water to, or harass manatees that are migrating to Florida for the winter season. These actions are illegal and can harm manatees. Boaters are also reminded to watch for manatees and adhere to posted speed zones. Manatees spotted outside of Florida past November should be reported to local wildlife officials.
As the weather cools and water temperatures lower in October and November, manatees outside of Florida begin their annual migratory route back to Florida. In the summer, some manatees can be found in rivers, bays, estuaries, and coastal water ecosystems of the southeastern U.S. From November through March, they are found in Florida’s warm-water refuges, such as natural springs with constant warm temperatures, or power plant discharge areas. These aquatic mammals can live in fresh or saltwater, but they cannot tolerate water temperatures below 68° F (20° C) for long periods of time. Prolonged exposure to cold water can cause sickness or even death in manatees, called “cold stress syndrome.”
The last winter season brought many challenges to manatees, including very cold temperatures and starvation from a massive loss of seagrass forage near a key warm-water refuge in the Northern Indian River Lagoon (IRL). Despite such, people should still not feed manatees or interrupt their annual migration. According to Patrick Rose, Aquatic Biologist and Executive Director for Save the Manatee Club, feeding manatees may encourage them to seek out more handouts instead of moving about on their journeys to Florida. “This can be detrimental if the temperature drops too quickly, and the manatee hasn’t made it to warm-water in time,” he explains. Manatees that are fed are also more likely to approach boats or docks expecting food, which makes them susceptible to injury, death, or harassment.
Rose also says that partnerships of government agencies and nongovernmental organizations are assessing the seagrass loss situation and are seriously considering manatee feeding or provisioning under controlled circumstances. “Planning is underway to closely monitor the health status of manatees near areas of seagrass loss in order to determine if additional interventions, such as feeding, might be required.” If feedings are carried out this winter, Save the Manatee Club and government agencies will alert the public and let concerned citizens know how they can support these endeavors through fundraisers. In the meantime, however, the public should not take it upon themselves to feed manatees, and any private “feeding events” seen on social media are not official and should be reported out of concern for what is best for manatees.
Even giving manatees lettuce or water is illegal and can be dangerous to the manatee’s long-term survival. While seagrass beds are declining in certain areas, manatees are still able to find food and water on their own in most areas without intervention. Unfortunately, Save the Manatee Club has seen stories of people giving water to manatees in Texas and in South Carolina this fall, and asks the public not to repeat these actions that could entice them to approach boats and docks and hinder their time-sensitive movement to Florida.
Instead of feeding or giving water to manatees, here are tips to help protect manatees as they migrate this fall season.
- A manatee spotted outside of Florida past the month of November may need to be rescued and should be reported. Visit savethemanatee.org/rescue to get resources for your state and learn how to spot a sick or injured manatee.
- Report cases of manatee harassment or feeding/giving water to manatees to local wildlife officials. Manatees are protected by several federal and state laws, and these actions are punishable by fines and/or imprisonment.
- In Florida, report sick, injured, orphaned, or dead manatees to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) by calling 1-888-404-3922 (FWCC).
- Boat slowly in posted speed zones and watch for manatee tails, snouts, and “footprints.” Be extra cautious near warm-water refuges such as springs or power plants.
- Protect seagrasses and prevent harmful algal blooms from forming by following the tips at savethemanatee.org/algae.