The silver lining of the global coronavirus lockdowns has been a sharp reduction in air pollution and carbon emissions, as well as more room to roam for some animals, but the pandemic hasn’t been a blessing for some wildlife. In Florida, the coronavirus has negatively impacted the safety of manatees. The pandemic has led to unsafe boating activity and caused delays to environmental projects — all of which endanger the manatees.
Patrick Rose, an aquatic biologist and executive director of the nonprofit Save the Manatee Club, said, “There are several troubling factors coming together during the pandemic. 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.”
The Guardian reported that in May, a 1,600-pound pregnant manatee was hit by a speeding boater, and remains in critical care. In June, a manatee swimming off the coast of southwest Florida collided with a boat, resulting in a rib fracture. Boating activity increased in March when the lockdown went into effect, likely because it was one of the few activities deemed safe.
Between April and May, manatee deaths increased by 20 percent compared to last year, and June isn’t looking any better.
Mike Engiles, manager of the Crystal River Watersports ecotourism company, said, “Once Florida started to open up outdoor recreation in early May, people swarmed to the waterways. 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 [manatees’ food source] from props and anchors.”
The pandemic has also caused delays in projects that would benefit the manatee environment, like breaching the Ocklawaha River dam. These delays, coupled with regulatory changes, put the manatee population at a particularly high risk during these turbulent times.