Manatees and Oil Don’t Mix

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Manatees and Oil Don’t Mix

From Save The Manatee Club
June 2010

The disastrous oil spill caused by the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico has already impacted over 70 miles of Louisiana coastline and is currently drifting toward other Gulf Coast states.


Exposure to oil is toxic and could potentially cause significant injury or death to manatees.
(Photo © David R. Schrichte)

If efforts to stop its progress fail, the consequences could be catastrophic for birds, fish, sea turtles, manatees, and other wildlife found in these areas. This is especially troubling since it comes on the heels of the worst manatee winter die-off ever experienced, with over 500 total manatees dead already this year and many of the deaths related to cold temperatures.


See a map from USA Today showing the spread of the oil spill in the Gulf.

The oil spill, estimated to be the worst in U.S. history, could not have come at a worse time of the year for manatees. During the summer months, manatees are widely distributed and can be found along the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. In addition, manatees are herbivores, feeding on a large variety of marine and freshwater vegetation. Oil can damage seagrass beds and other vegetation that manatees eat, and it can block sunlight required for vegetation to grow.

“Although there have been incidents involving dugongs and oil spills, there doesn’t appear to be any information regarding manatees and oil spills,” said Dr. Katie Tripp, Director of Science and Conservation for Save the Manatee Club. “But we have seen the effect of oil on other marine mammals like seals and sea otters, and we know that exposure to oil is toxic and could potentially cause significant injury or death to manatees. BP’s own training manual for oil spill responders states that thousands of animals die immediately from being inundated with the oil, and we can expect higher death rates in populations for years afterward. BP is also using chemical dispersants to break up the massive amounts of oil pouring into the Gulf, and there may be both current and long-term effects from these chemicals on marine organisms.”


Oil can damage seagrass beds and other vegetation that manatees eat.
(Photo © Patrick M. Rose, SMC)

Both federal and Florida state wildlife agencies have organized preparation efforts and have been conducting aerial surveys to determine where manatees might be located in the Florida Panhandle and into adjacent Gulf Coast states. In addition, these agencies are developing a rescue and recovery plan for manatees. Save the Manatee Club’s Executive Director, Patrick Rose, who formerly headed Florida’s Office of Protected Species and coordinated federal manatee recovery efforts, has pledged the Club’s substantial expertise and resources towards assisting in any way possible. “Dr. Tripp and I are in regular communication with the agencies to ensure we have first-hand information regarding the spill and associated activities and threats," said Rose.

“Whether affected manatees would be simply relocated to a clean area or taken into rehabilitation would likely be determined by the condition of the individual manatee and whether that manatee had actually come into contact with oil,” says Tripp. “More specifically, Save the Manatee Club has offered assistance to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, as well as the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama, to help with the procurement of nets, stretchers, or other needed supplies or support that may be necessary for manatee rescue or recovery.”