ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.— Conservation organizations petitioned the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission today to amend its boater-safety course to protect the state’s imperiled manatees, other marine mammals, sea turtles and coastal birds. Watercraft collisions killed at least 1,153 Florida manatees from 2010 to 2021, according to state officials.
Today’s petition follows the passage of the Florida Boating Safety Act of 2022, which aims to help improve safety for people and wildlife. The act requires the commission to approve new safety topics for the state’s boating-safety education course.
“Unsafe boating kills manatees and threatens the species’ survival, and better education could save a lot of animals,” said Ragan Whitlock, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Florida wildlife officials should seize this opportunity to educate boaters and put a stop to these senseless deaths.”
Boat strikes are one of the leading threats to Florida manatees. From 2010 to 2021, watercraft strikes accounted for 87% of human-caused manatee deaths in Florida, according to data from the wildlife commission’s manatee mortality page. On average, more than 100 manatees are killed by boaters in Florida every year.
“Florida’s manatees are suffering historic losses because of habitat loss, pollution, and watercraft collisions,” said Ryan Smart, executive director of the Florida Springs Council. “Now, more than ever, state officials need to do everything in their power to save these special marine mammals. Improving boater education and testing is an important step to minimize unnecessary manatee deaths in Florida waters.”
“There are approximately 130 boats for every manatee in Florida,” said Abbey Tyrna, executive director of Suncoast Waterkeeper. “We must ensure boaters understand how to be good stewards of manatee protection. Otherwise, boaters have the potential to inflict great harm on the species.”
Despite unsafe boating’s clear threat to manatees and other wildlife, the wildlife commission’s current requirements for boater-safety courses do not require testing specific to manatees and other coastal wildlife and sensitive habitats.
The petition requests that the commission include information and testing about federal and state manatee-protection areas. Manatee protections include “slow zones” and “no entry zones” that boaters should be aware of to reduce collisions in areas where manatees are known to congregate.
The Center for Biological Diversity, Florida Springs Council, Suncoast Waterkeeper, and Miami Waterkeeper are also asking the commission to provide boaters with information about other marine mammals, sea turtles, and critical wildlife areas that protect coastal birds, who also suffer impacts from boaters.
Florida now has more than 1 million registered boats, and the number increases steadily every year. With more boats on the water, interactions between wildlife and vessels are expected to increase. Boater education is proven effective to increase awareness and safety.