Virginians are excited this week because a manatee has come to visit. It was spotted this weekend in the Appomattox River (see video below). Manatees are residents of Florida, so what’s this one doing so far up the East Coast? Well, it’s not actually all that far out of its territory if you consider that manatees have swum as far north as Cape Cod. It seems that sometimes Florida’s state marine mammal likes to wander. But why?
Well, no one has ever asked the manatees (or if they have, they never got a good answer), but news reports describing various incidences of manatees in the north have plenty of speculation: The AP report about Virginia’s current visitor, for example, says that manatees sometimes leave Florida when waters there get too warm; they go north to cool off. A 2006 story about a Cape Code manatee says that it’s common for manatees to travel up to the shallow areas off the Carolinas. USGS wildlife biologist Cathy Beck speculated that the manatee followed a warm current up the coast to Massachusetts.
Manatee sightings north of the Carolinas are not uncommon these days. Baltimore has even had a repeat visitor, nicknamed Chessie, that has shown up multiple times since 1994. But whether more manatees are swimming north in the summer or more people are noticing them isn’t known.
But for now wandering manatees are just an interesting oddity, and perhaps a distraction from the bigger problems that the species faces. See, the Florida manatee (a subspecies of Trichechus manatus) is in trouble. The IUCN lists them as endangered and says there are fewer than 2,500 individuals. More than 200 manatees died in a deadly algal bloom earlier this year. They’re victims of habitat loss and often in conflict with the fishing industry (manatees get entangled in fishing gear). Boat collisions are also a huge danger. In 2010, for instance, 83 animals were killed in encounters with boats. One newspaper estimated that this year manatees are dying from all these various causes at a rate of 100 per month.
Some groups in Florida have petitioned to have the manatee’s status upgraded from Endangered to Threatened, noting that aerial surveys of the animals show that the Florida population has increased in recent years. But Caryn Self-Sullivan, a conservation biologist at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, argued in a blog post earlier this year that there’s little reason to change the mammal’s classification. Aerial surveys don’t produce reliable counts; mild winter conditions and poor visibility can skew the results. And changing the manatee’s status to Threatened would still indicate that they were in danger of extinction and in need of protection. “To reduce protection would likely produce a significant and deleterious effect on the manatee population in Florida,” she writes.
Classifying the manatee as Threatened wouldn’t immediately change any of the laws that protect the animals. But this is all moot for now; the reclassification discussion is on hold. That would seem to be good news, except that the hold is in response to this year’s high death rate. Manatees just can’t get a break.