By Gabrielle Russon
Beacon College students are studying the manatee crisis as Florida’s beloved sea cows are dying out in record numbers.
So far this year, the latest manatee death count has surpassed 700 animals, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission calculating the grim statistics from January through mid-October.
It’s part of a troubling pattern. Last year, more than 1,100 manatees died from starvation, the cold and boat collisions in Florida.
The topic of manatees has become a regular topic of discussion in Beacon anthrozoology instructor Bryan Cushing’s classroom as the number of manatee deaths keep rising. November is also Manatee Awareness Month, a time dedicated to conserving manatees in Florida and beyond.
In Cushing’s conservation class, Beacon anthrozoology junior Alec Crumpler is researching manatee and human encounters in Tampa Bay to learn more about the situation.
“Watercraft accidents are actually one of the leading causes of deaths in manatees,” said Crumpler, 23, of Pensacola.
Crumpler estimated 25% to 30% of recorded manatee deaths were tied to boats. In those cases, the animals were often hit by a boat’s hull or cut by the propellers.
Crumpler also said it’s important to educate fishers and boaters about how littering hurts manatees. Fishermen need to properly dispose of fishing lines which can entangle manatees. Plastic bags littered in the water are another risk.
Plastic bags “can catch on the seagrass, and when manatees ingest them, they entangle their organs,” Crumpler said. “It can be a very slow and painful death for them.”
But boats certainly aren’t the only threat to manatees.
Many manatees are starving to death. The seagrass manatees depend on is disappearing because of polluted waters. That’s led to state officials desperately trying to feed manatees by dumping romaine lettuce in popular manatee areas.
To keep waters clean, Cushing cautioned people to maintain their septic tanks as well as limit or avoid pesticides and fertilizers.
Another way for the public to make a difference is at the ballot box by voting for green-friendly initiatives and candidates who are committed to helping the environment, he said.
Cushing still remembers the awe he felt as a boy when he visited Florida on vacation from New York and saw manatees for the first time. He was mesmerized by the 3,000-pound creatures eating lettuce in their tanks.
“I think it is important to save the manatees because they are probably one of the most ‘innocent’ species. Gentle giants,” Cushing said. “More importantly, they needlessly suffer because of our behaviors and actions. We are both the problem and the solution.”
Cushing said he wants to deepen his students’ awareness of how the planet is so connected and how humans are linked with wildlife. He wants his students to become critical thinkers and gain a new appreciation for animals.
“We may have a love for animals but not understanding that even though we live in our houses in our neighborhoods, we are still a part of nature and we impact wildlife every single day of our lives through everything we do,” Cushing said. “It’s just about helping them see those connections.”
Deepening those connections sometimes means going on field trips to see manatees in person.
Beacon students have visited the ZooTampa at Lowery Park and SeaWorld Orlando which both have dedicated space for manatee rehabilitation to care for sick or injured manatees. The two sites have served essentially as emergency rooms during the state’s manatee crisis.
Crumpler called his visit to the Tampa zoo “eye-opening.”
Both Crumpler and Cushing ran off a long list of dangers for the manatees, creatures that are at risk. Is the future for the manatees bleak in Florida?
“There’s always hope,” Cushing said. “As powerful as we are as humans, nature is resilient. So, I think there’s always hope, but we have to act. … We all have a role to play.”