Service Position on Florida Manatee Out-of-State Stranding and Rescue Efforts
In recent years greater numbers of Florida manatees are being sighted outside of their historic range during fall and winter when the animals would normally be congregating in warm waters of the Florida peninsula. Such sightings are necessitating more decisions about if and when to capture wayward animals and return them to Florida.
Unfortunately, there is no blueprint for how to make these decisions. Many will recall that the manatee affectionately known as “Chessie” made several migrations well north of the normal range of the species. However, in 2008 a manatee died from cold stress shortly after its rescue from the cold waters of Massachusetts. Thus, some manatees have succeeded and others failed while exploring waters beyond the springs and southern coast of the Florida peninsula.
From a purely biological perspective, the Service could elect to not rescue any manatees and let nature take its course. Alternatively, we could also attempt to rescue of all manatees outside their normal range before they become stressed. As a conservation agency, we believe neither approach is feasible or appropriate.
If we attempt to rescue all animals, we interrupt a natural process, and the rescued animals may unknowingly lead others to back to unsuitable areas where they will undoubtedly risk death. However, the Service cannot ignore the intense public interest in the welfare of individual manatees. We are, after all, a reflection of the public interest in the species.
Therefore, we make decisions to approve the rescue of manatees are made on a case by case basis. We consider factors such as size and age of the animal, its apparent health, geographic location, current weather conditions, logistics, and any known history of the animal. In general, our approach is to let manatees to explore new territories and migrate naturally if at all possible; in other words, let wild animals be wild animals. The biological urge to explore new habitats is a natural one and the success -- or failure -- of animals to find suitable new habitats is part of a natural process for a species whose population is growing and its range expanding. We view rescues as a very last resort, and while funds to rescue manatees are limited, we will authorize rescue if we believe no other options are available.
To enhance the effectiveness of rescue efforts, we recently conducted workshops along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, providing training to improve rescue efforts. These efforts will improve the likelihood of a success if we decide a rescue is warranted outside of Florida.
Attempting rescues of Florida manatees outside of their normal range is fraught with dangers and costly challenges and rife with questions of biological appropriateness. Mother Nature may not always provide the happy ending everyone hopes to see. However, the Service is fully committed to the conservation and recovery of the species, and learning as we go as to when, where, and how to rescue manatees.
For more information on manatee conservation, visit us on-line at www.fws.gov/northflorida.