West Indian manatee
- Taxon: Mammal
- Range: Throughout the Caribbean basin, including the southeastern United States, eastern Mexico, eastern Central America, northeastern South America, and the Greater Antilles
- Status: Threatened
The West Indian manatee is a large, aquatic mammal. There are two subspecies of West Indian manatees: the Antillean manatee (Trichechus manatus manatus), and the Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris). Due to their eating habits, manatees are nicknamed “sea cows” because they eat seagrasses and other aquatic plants.
Manatees are protected under the Endangered Species Act and under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Today, the range-wide population is estimated to be at least 13,000 manatees, with more than 6,500 in the southeastern United States and Puerto Rico. When aerial surveys began in 1991, there were an estimated 1,267 manatees in Florida. Today there are more than 6,300 in Florida, representing a significant increase over the past 25 years. Learn more about the manatee’s road to recovery.
Manatees are large, elongated marine mammals with paired flippers and a large, spoon-shaped tail. They can reach lengths of over 14 feet and weights of over 3,000 pounds. Manatees are typically greyish brown in color. They have sparse hairs spread across their bodies, with bristles about the muzzle.
Manatees live in marine, brackish, and freshwater systems in coastal and riverine areas throughout their range. Preferred habitats include areas near the shore featuring underwater vegetation like seagrass and eelgrass. They feed along grass bed margins with access to deep water channels, where they flee when threatened. Florida manatees can be found throughout Florida for most of the year. However, they cannot tolerate temperatures below 68 degrees Fahrenheit for extended periods of time, and during the winter months these cold temperatures keep the population concentrated in peninsular Florida. Many manatees rely on the warm water from natural springs and power plant outfalls.
During the summer manatees expand their range, and on rare occasions are seen as far north as Massachusetts on the Atlantic coast and as far west as Texas on the Gulf coast. Manatees may travel hundreds of miles during a year’s time, preferring to travel along channels and shorelines.
Manatees feed on plants. They prefer submergent vegetation, such as turtle and manatee grass, and will feed on floating and emergent plants as well. Manatees also require freshwater for drinking.
Historically, West Indian manatees were found along the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts, throughout the Caribbean, and as far south as Brazil’s Atlantic coastline. However, due to hunting, habitat fragmentation and loss, and other factors, manatees have disappeared from various parts of their range. For example, manatee hunts were common until the early 1900s, and as a result the species is no longer found in Guadeloupe and other islands in the Lesser Antilles.
Today manatees are found in the southeastern U.S., eastern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panamá, Nicaragua, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and in the Bahamas.
Where can I see manatees?
In the U.S, good places to see manatees include Blue Spring State Park (Florida), the Haulover Canal Manatee Viewing Area (Florida), and Three Sisters Springs (Florida). When viewing manatees in Kings Bay, please demonstrate your “Manatee Manners.”
For other places to view manatees visit myfwc.com/education/wildlife/manatee/where-to-see. Before you encounter a manatee be sure to brush up on the FWC’s viewing guidelines to ensure the safety of both yourself and the manatees.
Manatee protection areas
Within the U.S., the most significant causes of death and injury for manatees are watercraft collisions. To reduce the effect of collisions on manatees, boat operators are required to slow down and or avoid regulated areas commonly used by manatees. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and others designate, mark, and enforce manatee protection areas.
- Federal Manatee Protection Areas
- Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Protection Zones
Wildlife Refuges that provide habitat
- Aransas National Wildlife Refuge
- Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge
- Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge
- Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge
- Blackbeard Island National Wildlife Refuge
- Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge
- Caloosahatchee National Wildlife Refuge
- Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge
- Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge
- Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge
- Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge
- Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge
- Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge
- Culebra National Wildlife Refuge
- Currituck National Wildlife Refuge
- Egmont Key National Wildlife Refuge
- Ernest F. Hollings Ace Basin National Wildlife Refuge
- Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge
- Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge
- Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge
- Island Bay National Wildlife Refuge
- J.N. ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge
- Key West National Wildlife Refuge
- Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge
- Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge
- Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge
- Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge
- Matlacha Pass National Wildlife Refuge
- Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
- National Key Deer Refuge
- Passage Key National Wildlife Refuge
- Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge
- Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge
- Pine Island National Wildlife Refuge
- Pinellas National Wildlife Refuge
- Santee National Wildlife Refuge
- Savannah-Pinckney National Wildlife Refuges
- St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
- St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge
- Swanquarter National Wildlife Refuge
- Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge
- Tybee National Wildlife Refuge
- Vieques National Wildlife Refuge
- Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge
- Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge
- Wolf Island National Wildlife Refuge
Following extensive review of the threats the manatee faces as well as the conservation actions currently in place to help recover it, the Service reclassified the species as threatened on March 30, 2017.
Actions needed for recovery
- Minimize causes of manatee disturbance, harassment, injury and mortality
- Determine and monitor the status of the manatee population.
- Protect, identify, evaluate, and monitor manatee habitats.
- Facilitate manatee recovery through public awareness and education.
Antillean manatees in Puerto Rico
Actions needed for recovery
- Identify, assess and reduce human-related manatee mortality.
- Identify and minimize alteration, degradation, and destruction of habitats important to the survival and recovery of the Puerto Rico manatee population.
- Develop the criteria and biological information necessary to determine whether and, if so, when to reclassify the Puerto Rico population of manatees.
Primary threats to the West Indian manatee include habitat loss and fragmentation, entanglements in fishing gear, collisions with boats, and others.
The most significant problems presently faced by Florida manatees is the loss of warm water habitat, and death and injury from boat strikes. Natural threats can include harmful algal blooms, cold weather, tropical storms and hurricanes, tidal entrapments, and disease.
Partnerships, research and projects
Whether capturing manatees for health checks, research purposes or rescuing stranded/distressed animals, doing so is a challenging effort requiring a dedicated team of public and private manatee conservation partners.
We work with federal, state, academic and non-profit organizations across the southeastern United States and Puerto Rico to conserve manatees. Outside the U.S., there are many countries and organizations working to conserve manatees.
USGS Manatee Sirenia Project Conducts long-term, detailed studies on the life history, population dynamics, and ecological requirements of the West Indian manatee. Sirenia Project biologists work cooperatively with federal and state researchers and managers on research identified as essential for the recovery of the species.
Monofilament Recovery & Recycling Program An effort across the state of Florida to educate the public on the problems caused by monofilament line left in the environment, to encourage recycling through a network of line recycling bins and drop-off locations, and to conduct volunteer monofilament line cleanup events.
Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Partnership The MRP is a cooperative group of non-profit, private, state, and federal entities with a stake in tracking the post-release fate of rehabilitated manatees in the wild. The goal of the manatee rescue and rehabilitation program is to treat sick and injured manatees and release them back into the wild.
Sea to Shore Alliance A member of the Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Partnership, Sea to Shore is responsible for tracking and monitoring rescued and rehabilitated animals to ensure that it is properly adjusting to life in the wild.
How you can help
Be mindful of manatees while boating
This is one of the most important things you can do to help manatees. Boaters should obey posted manatee protection area restrictions. When you travel slowly through these areas, you give manatees a chance to safely get out of your way. In addition, when you travel slowly, they‘re easier to see. Watching manatees has become a national pastime – enjoy! (You will improve your ability to see manatees if you wear sunglasses with brown, polarized lenses.)
For more tips, read the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s “A Boater‘s Guide to Living with Florida Manatees,” and bring it with you on your next trip.
Help keep wild creatures wild
It is best for humans to minimize interactions with manatees. You should never initiate contact with a manatee. Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge has produced a series of videos called “Manatee Manners” that provides tips on how swimmers, boaters, photographers and paddlers at the refuge should behave when sharing waters with manatees. View Manatee Manners online.
Subject matter experts
There are many agencies and organizations with people who can talk to you about manatees. You may want to contact:
- Departamento de Recursos Naturales y Ambientales (Puerto Rico): (787) 999-2200
- Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission: (850) 922-4330
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, North Florida Ecological Services Office: (904) 731-3332
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Caribbean Ecological Services Field Office: (787) 851-7297
Designated critical habitat
Critical habitat for the West Indian manatee was described in 1976 in 50 CFR 17.95 and only identifies areas in Florida. Critical habitat includes:
Crystal River and its headwaters known as King’s Bay, Citrus County; the Little Manatee River downstream from the U.S. Highway 301 bridge, Hillsborough County; the Manatee River downstream from the Lake Manatee Dam, Manatee County; the Myakka River downstream from Myakka River State Park, Sarasota and Charlotte Counties; the Peace River downstream from the Florida State Highway 760 bridge, De Soto and Charlotte Counties; Charlotte Harbor north of the Charlotte-Lee County line, Charlotte County; Caloosahatchee River downstream from the Florida State Highway 31 bridge, Lee County; all U.S. territorial waters adjoining the coast and islands of Lee County; all U.S. territorial waters adjoining the coast and islands and all connected bays, estuaries , and rivers from Gordon”s Pass, near Naples, Collier County, southward to and including Whitewater Bay, Monroe County; all waters of Card, Barnes, Blackwater, Little Blackwater, Manatee, and Buttonwood Sounds between Key Largo, Monroe County, and the mainland of Dade County; Biscayne Bay, and all adjoining and connected lakes, rivers, canals, and waterways from the southern tip of Key Biscayne northward to and including Maule Lake, Dade County; all of Lake Worth, from its northernmost point immediately south of the intersection of U.S. Highway 1 and Florida State Highway A1A southward to its southernmost point immediately north of the town of Boynton Beach, Palm Beach County; the Loxahatchee River and its headwaters, Martin and West Palm Beach Counties; that section of the intracoastal waterway from the town of Seawalls Point, Martin County to Jupiter Inlet, Palm Beach County; the entire inland section of water known as the Indian River, from its northernmost point immediately south of the intersection of U.S. Highway I and Florida State Highway 3, Volusia County, southward to its southernmost point near the town of Sewalls Point, Martin County, and the entire inland section of water known as the Banana River and all waterways between Indian and Banana Rivers, Brevard County; the St. Johns River including Lake George, and including Blue Springs and Silver Glen Springs from their points of origin to their confluences with the St. Johns River; that section of the Intracoastal Waterway from its confluences with the St. Marys River on the Georgia-Florida border to the Florida State Highway A1A bridge south of Coastal City, Nassau and Duval Counties.
Petition for critical habitat revision
In 2008, the Service was petitioned to revise critical habitat for this species. In 2010, we found that a revision was warranted but precluded due to other priorities.
- July 2, 2014 Service announces 90-day petition finding for West Indian manatee, to move forward with status review
- March 11, 2013 Federal and State Officials say red tide killing manatees
- Service Improves Manatee Protection in King’s Bay
- June 21, 2011 Federal proposal would broaden manatee protections in Crystal River
- November 5, 2010 Service broadens Florida manatee protections in Kings Bay located in Citrus County, Florida
- February 19, 2010 Service urges boaters to be alert as manatee movements increase with warmer weather
- January 12, 2010 Service announces 12-month Finding on Petition to Revise Florida Manatee Critical Habitat
- December 18, 2009 FWS and FDEP will defer release of manatees at the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park until 2011
- September 29, 2009 Federal Finding Means Florida Manatee Critical Habitat Designation Merits Further Review
- June 22, 2009 Manatee Zone enforcement slated for Brevard County over the July 4th Weekend
- April 9, 2007 Service Announces Availability of West Indian Manatee Five-Year Review
- March 23, 2007 Valade selected as a Service 2006 National Recovery Champion
- March 12, 2007 Federal and State Wildlife Agencies Address Manatee-Human Interactions in Citrus County
- June 16, 2006 Conservation Agencies Encourage Boaters to Self-Report Collisions with Manatees
- March 24, 2006 USFWS announces reopening of comment period and expansion of its West Indian manatee ESA 5-Year Status Review
- April 28, 2005 USFWS announces amendment to portion of Lower St. Johns River Manatee Protection Area
- April 14, 2005 USFWS seeks Public Input for Manatee 5-year review
- July 7, 2004 USFWS withdraws its Federal designation at two manatee protection areas (refuges) in Florida
- April 7, 2004 Emergency Designation of an Additional Federal Manatee Protection Area in Lee County
- October 21, 2003 USFWS announces Proposed Withdrawal of Two Federally-designated manatee protection areas (refuges)
- August 1, 2003 USFWS announces final designation of three Federal manatee protection areas (refuges) in five Florida counties
- May 5, 2003 USFWS announces withdrawal of Proposed manatee MMPA Incidental Take Regulations
- April 4, 2003 USFWS announces availability of Final EIS for manatee MMPA rulemaking
- April 1, 2003 USFWS proposes three additional federal manatee protection areas in five Florida counties
- January 24, 2003 USFWS reaches agreement to increase protections for Florida manatee
- Manatee Lawsuit Archive
- January 8, 2003 USFWS extends public comment period on proposed manatee MMPA regulations
- November 6, 2002 Service Seeks Public Comment on Proposed Regulations for the Florida Manatee
- November 1, 2002 Service statement on filing of manatee protection area regulations
- November 1, 2002 Service Notice of request for input on additional measure to protect & recover Florida manatee
- November 1, 2002 Service Finalizes Designation of manatee protection areas in eight Florida counties
- September 16, 2002 Service extends emergency manatee protection to seven areas in three Florida counties
- July 31, 2002 USFWS issues statement on today’s U.S. District Court manatee settlement ruling
- July 2, 2002 USFWS Law Enforcement focuses manatee protection area enforcement in Brevard County this summer weekend
- June 14, 2002 USFWS Law Enforcement focuses manatee protection area enforcement in Sarasota County next weekend
- June 10, 2002 USFWS Seeking Public Input on a Process to Conserve Florida Manatees
- May 8, 2002 Enforcement of federal manatee protection areas in Brevard County to go into effect soon
- April 16, 2002 USFWS Law Enforcement focuses manatee protection area enforcement in Brevard County this weekend
- April 16, 2002 USFWS Announces Proposed Amendment to Barge Canal manatee protection area
- January 2, 2002 FWS issues final decision on Federal manatee protection areas in Florida
- October 30, 2001 Revised Manatee Recovery Plan Released
- August 27, 2001 Public Hearing Schedule on Federal Manatee Protection Areas Announced
- August 2, 2001 Proposed Rule on Federal Designation of Manatee Protection Areas Announced
- July 10, 2001 Draft Florida Manatee Recovery Plan, Third Revision available for public review and comment
- June 29, 2001 Proposed Designation of Federal Manatee Protection Areas postponed an additional 30 days
- May 2, 2001 Parties Agree to 2nd Deadline Extension for Proposed Federal Manatee Protection Areas
- April 20, 2001 USFWS Statement on FWCC manatee settlement decision
- March 30, 2001 USFWS State Supervisor Statement on Fla. FWCC proposed Brevard County Manatee Rule
- March 23, 2001 Parties Agree to Extend Deadline for Proposed Federal Manatee Protection Areas
- March 13, 2001 Service considers special regulations for Florida manatee
- March 1, 2001 Manatee recovery plan release postponed
- January 4, 2001 Manatee lawsuit settled
- January 2, 2001 Rescue planned for manatees
- November 30, 2000 Manatee Revised Recovery Plan Availability
- November 27, 2000 Manatee Refuges & Sanctuaries Public Workshops
- Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge: the Florida Manatee
- Departamento de Recursos Naturales y Ambientales (Puerto Rico)
- Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, North Florida Ecological Services Office
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Caribbean Ecological Services Field Office
- United Nations Environmental Programme
- Belize Department of the Environment Ministry of Forestry, Fisheries and Sustainable Development
- Sirenian International
Federal Register notices
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