The apparent environmental upside of Covid-19, such as lower pollution and emissions, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Just ask manatee conservationists in Florida.
Keeping this threatened species safe has increasingly been an uphill battle – especially since manatees were controversially downgraded from “endangered” in 2017. But conservationists are facing unexpected challenges in the face of coronavirus. So far, the pandemic has led to more unsafe boating activity, delays to environmental project launches and even changes in public policy – none of which favor these gentle giants.
“There are several troubling factors coming together during the pandemic,” said Patrick Rose, an aquatic biologist and executive director of the nonprofit Save the Manatee Club. “Manatees were already facing accelerated habitat loss, rising fatalities from boat collisions and less regulatory protection. With Covid, we’re seeing manatees at an increased risk, both from policies that undermine environmental standards and from irresponsible outdoor activity, such as boaters ignoring slow-speed zones.”
Boaters speeding through manatee habitats can easily injure or kill the slow-moving mammals. A 1,600-pound pregnant manatee was hit by a boat near Siesta Key in May; she was rescued and delivered a healthy calf but remains in critical care, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). In June, a manatee swimming off the coast of southwest Florida collided with a vessel, causing a rib fracture that punctured its lung. These types of collisions are so common that researchers use scars as a way to identify individual manatees.
Rose says dangerous boating activity increased in March, as boat ramps remained open while other recreation sites closed for lockdown, and it’s now on the rise again as Florida reopens.
Researchers know manatees are increasingly at risk– manatee deaths went up nearly 20% for April through May, compared to last year, and June is already exceeding the five-year average for this time. But the FWC can’t say why – due to necropsy restrictions during Covid-19, there’s no official cause of death for most of the carcasses.
“We suspect there were many more manatees killed by boating than we could determine,” Rose said.
Mike Engiles, who manages the ecotourism company Crystal River Watersports, has also noticed a spike in reckless behavior on the water, including speeding boats and littering. Crystal River is famous for having more than 70 warm springs where manatees winter.
“Once Florida started to open up outdoor recreation in early May, people swarmed to the waterways,” he said. “Unguided boaters and swimmers have had a detrimental effect on the environment. There’s an increase in trash. There are reports of destruction to the grass beds from props and anchors.” Engiles adds that swimmers have been taking home rocks meant to stabilize the river banks.
Meanwhile, guided recreation like manatee swims in Crystal River’s Citrus county – the only place in the US you can legally swim with manatees – has stopped. That means fewer expert eyes on the water, as many guides are trained to spot injured manatees and understand threats to their safety, says Engiles.
Beyond presenting immediate challenges, the pandemic is also affecting longer-term efforts for conservation.
Social distancing has necessitated delays in certain projects that once required in-person meetings – like the initiative to breach the Ocklawaha River dam, which would provide warm-water habitat for manatees. It’s a time-sensitive effort, as the 50-year-old dam is up for review this year.
But conservation work continues, despite delays and teleworking. A coalition of more than 30 organizations is currently at work on legislation to restore the Ocklawaha.
The real problem, Rose said, are regulatory changes that threaten the manatee’s ecosystem. Their impacts will long outlast any temporary gains from less waterfront construction or lower air pollution that result from quarantine.
A number of deregulation efforts have happened since March – including an executive order that rollbacks environmental protections in favor of faster development. Unsustainable coastal development can destroy seagrass, manatees’ primary food source.
Other changes, like the Environmental Protection Agency’s new policy to suspend air and water pollution monitoring requirements during the outbreak, can further harm manatee habitats. Climate change already causes cold snaps, superstorms and rising sea levels that will ultimately suppress warm springs, all potentially fatal for manatees.
Without regulatory support, the current precarious situation for Florida manatees could reach a tipping point, leading to the collapse of aquatic resources they rely on, Rose said.
“I’ve been working at this for about 50 years,” he said. “We have many more manatees today than we had then. But we don’t necessarily have a growing population. We’re bumping up against the carrying capacity of the habitat, in terms of food and warm water supply. We’ve lost tens of thousands of acres of seagrass over the past decade. The power plants, which currently supply artificial warm water, will also be closing in the coming years, making our fight to protect natural warm springs habitat all the more critical.”
Rose says there’s room for recovery, but only with the necessary protective measures in place. In all likelihood, given the current trends, the need to advocate for manatees will be around much longer than the pandemic.