Manatee rescue and recovery in Everglades - South Dade News Leader: Community News | South Dade News Leader | Miami Dade County

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Manatee rescue and recovery in Everglades

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Posted: Thursday, April 28, 2016 4:06 pm | Updated: 11:54 am, Fri Apr 29, 2016.

One morning in January, a boater in Everglades National Park was returning to the Flamingo Marina when he spotted what he thought was an injured manatee floating on the water.

After docking, he went to the Flamingo Ranger Station and told the district ranger what he had seen.

The ranger promptly contacted Donna and John Buckley, husband and wife volunteers who have been rescuing and recovering manatees in the park for 30 years.

The Buckleys then contacted Sarah and David Trigg, also husband and wife volunteers, who have worked with manatees for 30 years. The Buckleys contacted the Triggs because their Carolina Skiff was docked near where the manatee had been seen.

Donna Buckley contacted Hada Herring, marine biologist at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission whose specialty is field research with stranding marine mammals.

The collaboration between Everglades National Park, state wildlife agencies and citizen volunteers is exactly the kind of environmental stewardship park officials try to cultivate.

And the plight of the manatee, also known as the sea cow, is of special concern.

"Manatees are exposed to a variety of natural and human-related threats," Herring said. "Natural threats include, but are not limited to, diseases, cold stress, and red tide events."

FWC annually responds to roughly three manatee deaths a year in the Everglades, she said. In 2010, however, over 100 manatees died largely as a result of extreme cold temperatures and low levels of red tide.

Not surprisingly, the greatest threat to manatees does not come from nature. It comes from people.

"Human-related threats can include watercraft injuries and fishery/debris entanglements or ingestions," Herring said. "Unfortunately, watercraft injuries is the primary human-related cause for manatee mortalities. In fact, the way in which biologists identify individual manatees is by the unique scars located on their back and paddle. Although scars can be sustained from their environment and diseases, most are sustained from injuries caused by vessels."

As a biologist, Herring must conduct laboratory procedures that determine how animals were injured or died in the Everglades. She said that day or night, rain or shine, she and members of the stranding team will respond to manatees, dolphins and whales in their designated 10-county region.

"Although unfortunate, a critical aspect of our job is responding to deceased manatees," she said. "By conducting an animal autopsy, known as a necropsy, biologists aim to determine the cause of death of the animal as well as contribute to research regarding anatomy, diseases, and more. The accumulation of this data then helps with the management and conservation of manatees."

After recovering the manatee with Donna Buckley and Sarah Trigg, Herring transported the animal to the FWC laboratory where a necropsy was conducted. She said the manatee had, among other injuries, fractured ribs and torn organs.

These injuries, she said, were associated with hemorrhaging and blood clots, all signs indicating it had been struck by a watercraft.

"It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine who caused the injury," she said. "However, the benefits of obtaining this data is to contribute to statewide research, which in turn enhances the laws and enforcement relating to marine protected areas, speed zones and more."

Herring said that in addition to being interesting creatures to observe, manatees play a pivotal role in their environment. As an umbrella species, they are able to promote the protection of critical habitat such as sea grass beds. Sea grass beds are necessary for sustaining a variety of species, aiding with water quality and mitigating storm damage to coastal areas.

Manatees are also a sentinel species.

"Similar to the 'canary in the coal mine,' manatees serve as indicators of the health of our environment," Herring said. "This in turn alerts us to when there are possible concerns for humans, such as red tide. By protecting manatees we are indirectly protecting people, too."

After some 30 years of working with manatees, beginning when the sophisticated technology used today was in its infancy, the Buckleys and Triggs still cherish their experiences and the challenges of their early work.

In the beginning, they worked with park biologist Skip Snow. One of Donna Buckley's jobs was to fill out a sheet of paper whenever they saw a manatee in the park, describing, among other features, the sky and weather conditions. She also had a thermometer and an instrument to test water salinity. And, of course, she would record any markings on the manatees and put radio collars on the tails of some to follow their travel.

When satellite technology arrived, park rangers and FWC scientists could track manatees from their offices, Donna Buckley said.

After a while, volunteers were not needed as much for information gathering. But the hands-on side of rescue and recovery continues. When a visitor sees a dead manatee and reports it, for example, the Buckleys and Triggs still get calls from rangers to go out in a powerboat to secure the animal to a nearby mangrove, record the GPS coordinates and report the incident to FWC scientists. They also transmit photos with their phones.

Herring said she enjoys many aspects of her job as a marine biologist, but interactions with environmentally committed people stand out.

"It is meeting people from all walks of life, a coworker, intern, volunteer or citizen who all come together for a common cause," she said. "It is extraordinary what people can achieve when working together. It's being able to be immersed in 'wild' Florida and enjoy all of the stunning landscapes and wildlife that this state has to offer.

"It is hearing a manatee take a breath, watching the 'goodbye tail wave' of an animal who was successfully rehabilitated and released back into the wild. That makes all of the hard work and long hours worthwhile."

Bill Maxwell is a volunteer writer for the centennial celebration of the National Park Service.

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