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Florida Manatee: Opening a Door to Survival

Connectivity of Florida's rivers and springs is key for many species in Florida. Learn more

Despite its frequent coating of green algae and a face only a mother should love, the Florida manatee is a big-time celebrity. Sadly, the manatee—known as a gentle giant or sea cow—is also on the brink of extinction.

Each year manatees battle to survive water quality issues and cold snaps. Despite federal and state efforts to protect the manatee, the future of this endangered species is far from assured.

Today the Conservancy has begun a freshwater spring restoration program that should increase the manatee’s survival odds by improving their access to warm wintertime retreats at several Florida springs. You can help us continue this work.

“If the manatee is to survive for future generations, it’s urgent that their freshwater and marine habitats be reconnected – right now,” says aquatic scientist Steve Herrington, Ph.D, who directs the Conservancy effort.

Warm Water is Critical

“Florida manatees can’t survive in the cold; they may die when water temperatures drop below 68°,” says Herrington. “Florida is the northernmost point of the natural range for these tropical marine mammals; they’ll migrate many miles to reach freshwater springs when in need of warmer water.”

Due to bubbling groundwater—many millions of gallons daily— Florida springs maintain a temperature in the low 70s year-round. They become destination resorts for manatees during cold snaps. But lately, some travel routes to the springs have become restricted by sediment build-up and other obstructions.

The Conservancy Helps Clear the Way

“We can’t control the weather, but we can and do support healthy manatee habitat and easy access,” Herrington continues. “The Conservancy has identified several Florida sites that are most in need of our help and will complete restoration over the next few years.”

Those of highest priority drain to the Gulf of Mexico, primarily in the Big Bend area of the upper Florida peninsula. See a video!

Conservancy projects will:

  • Improve access to priority spring runs and their connection to rivers
  • Reduce the impacts of dams, weirs and other man-made obstructions
  • Decrease sediments that build up, making spring runs too shallow for manatees 

You can help this cause.

Completed: Three Sisters Springs Access

In 2010, the Conservancy supplied funding to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, allowing the repositioning of a number of boulders that for many years had blocked the manatees’ passage into the springs. Three Sisters is part of the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge Complex at Crystal River, at the heart of north central Florida’s critical manatee winter habitat.

After a remarkable display of efficiency, speed and collaboration among partners, manatees now have unfettered access to this major spring system. Work was completed just before a record-breaking cold snap. Approximately 200 manatees have since been seen basking in its relative warmth, 24/7.

Completed: Fanning Springs

Located off the Suwannee River in Levy County, Fanning Springs is a top priority in the manatee effort due to its serious problem with sediments and a low, floating state park dock that spans the entire run.

At Fanning Springs, an average 1,200–pound manatee has to first fight its way through sediment at the mouth of the run, and then shimmy under the dock. This is especially difficult during low-flow periods.

Although serious deterrents for the manatee, these problems are a fairly quick fix. The Conservancy is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Division of Recreation and Parks to coordinate sediment removal and modify the floating dock. Work should be completed this fall.

Although serious deterrents for the manatee, these problems are a fairly quick fix. The Conservancy is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Division of Recreation and Parks to coordinate sediment removal and modify the floating dock. Dredging work was completed in January 2012 and the manatees lined right up to take advantage of the deeper pathway to the springhead.

The Conservancy will then observe wintering manatees at the spring; it hopes to follow a new calf and its mother to their summer home in the Gulf of Mexico. At nearby St. Martins Marsh in the Gulf, the Conservancy is also working to restore sea-grass beds—a primary food source for these slow-moving, vegetarian creatures.

Manatee vs. Man

Cold water and habitat destruction are deadly adversaries, but the playful manatee faces additional challenges:

  • Run-ins with watercraft
  • Canal locks and flood gates
  • Human harassment
  • Entanglement in fishing gear and traps

Florida’s statewide manatee count reached almost 5,000 in winter of 2011, however – an encouraging report.

Partnerships Make it Possible

A generous Conservancy member’s donation was the springboard for the Conservancy’s manatee habitat protection project. And despite reduced budgets, state and federal agencies are eager to join forces and leverage Conservancy efforts. 

Help us today.

A proud member of the state Springs Task Force, the Conservancy collaborated with its state and federal conservation partners to assign priority to those sites with both the most problems and the most importance to manatees.

Today the Conservancy is focused and taking action for the manatee. By working with partners, we hope to ensure that these gentle giants will reach their safe, wintertime habitats—and remain in Florida’s future. See a video about our springs restoration work to improve manatee habitat.

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