As temperatures warm up in summer, many Georgians think about heading to the beach, maybe the Golden Isles or perhaps Florida. For many Florida-residing manatees, they consider the reverse.
The population of the Florida manatee numbers at least 6,000 – approximately half of which inhabit the Gulf of Mexico side of Florida and half on the Atlantic side (when aerial surveys started in 1991, there were only an estimated 1,267 manatees in Florida). Each spring and summer, an unknown number of these make their way to the tidal rivers and estuaries of coastal Georgia before returning to Florida in the fall as the Georgian waters turn cooler.
In 2015, working with the Sea to Shore Alliance and the Georgia Aquarium, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Nongame Conservation Section began tracking a number of manatees each summer. The Nongame Conservation Section documents cases of mortality and injury, rescues injured and out-of-habitat manatees, monitors distribution, educates boaters and reviews permits and policy that could impact manatees. In addition to its partners on the tracking project, it works with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Navy to help conserve manatees in Georgia.
This year, eight manatees were caught, fitted with GPS transmitters and returned to Cumberland Sound between May 31 and June 2. Additionally, two out of the 13 manatees tracked the previous two summers are still transmitting. Five were fitted with transmitters in 2015 and ranged as far north as Sapelo Island and as far south as Cape Canaveral.
The goal of the study is to learn about manatee activity generally, but particularly around the Navy’s Kings Bay submarine base. The base is home to the U.S. Atlantic Fleet of ballistic missile nuclear submarines armed with Trident missile nuclear weapons.
The GPS transmitters allow biologists to document migratory paths and behavior in the area. Tracking has show that manatees routinely visit the submarine base and that the Intracoastal Waterway has become an important migratory path for manatees.
“The Intracoastal Waterway is like a manatee highway,” DNR biologist Clay George said. The danger is that it is also a popular route for boats, putting manatees at added risk of boat strikes, a significant cause of manatee fatalities.
Between 2000 and 2014, sixty manatee fatalities were documented in Georgia. Of these, 28% were due to watercraft collisions and 20% were from cold stress. Shrimp nets, gunshot and entrapment were also occasional causes. Tracking and awareness have helped to recover the populations somewhat – enough so that just recently, in March, the U.S. Department of the Interior officially reclassified the West Indian manatee as “threatened”, a slightly better classification than “endangered.”
“The Fish and Wildlife Service has worked hand in hand with state and local governments, businesses, industry, and countless stakeholders over many years to protect and restore a mammal that is cherished by people around the world,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke.
With the work of the Georgia DNR, and plenty of help from other partners, the next step could be de-listing.