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Georgia Coastal Boaters Urged to Watch for Sea Turtles and Manatees |  Characteristics


BRUNSWICK — With sightings of sea turtles and manatees on the Georgian coast increasing, boaters should be on the lookout for these large and rare animals.

Collisions with boats are a leading cause of sea turtle strandings and manatee injuries and deaths. Manatees and all species of sea turtles found in Georgia are protected by federal and state laws.

Advice on what to look out for in the troubled waters off the coast differs. A “footprint” of whirlpools can mark a 9-foot-long manatee underwater. A 300 pound loggerhead sea turtle may only show its head when it surfaces. Sea turtles spend more time at the surface in the spring, which puts them at greater risk of being struck by a boat.

Boaters should be alert, be prepared to slow down or avoid, and if they encounter a sea turtle or manatee, wait and contact DNR immediately at 800-2-SAVE-ME (800-272-8363). This offers biologists the best chance to help these animals and gather data useful for their conservation. Boaters will not be charged if they operate their boat responsibly and the collision was an accident.

State sea turtle program coordinator Mark Dodd, senior wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, pointed out that sea turtles are not limited to the ocean side of barrier islands.

“They happen everywhere, not just in the ocean,” Dodd said. “They are in the sounds, the estuaries, the tidal creeks.”

Although nesting data indicate that the federally threatened loggerheads are persisting, ship strikes that kill or injure breeding females are a significant threat. Of the 84 dead or injured sea turtles found on Georgia beaches last year, 45% of those that could be assessed had suffered injuries consistent with being struck by a boat.

Manatees share a similar problem. These large, slow-moving mammals swim just below the surface, often putting them at risk for oncoming boats. Collisions with watercraft have caused about 28 percent of documented manatee deaths in the state since 2000.

West Indian manatees, including the Florida manatee subspecies found in Georgia, are protected under the Endangered Species Act (they are listed as threatened) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Manatees migrate from Florida to Georgia each spring, attracted by the abundant marsh grass and other aquatic vegetation. Some move back and forth between states during the summer, until cooler water temperatures in the fall draw them south to Florida for the winter. But from March through November, manatees are present in all tidal waters of the Georgian coast, said senior wildlife biologist Clay George of MNR’s Wildlife Conservation Section.

Also, as in 2021, there is another factor at play this year. Reduced food resources at key wintering sites in Florida have resulted in the death of 300 or more manatees along the Atlantic coast. This situation, which is part of an ongoing unusual mortality event declared by federal agencies, means that when animals begin to migrate north, Georgia’s marsh habitats are all the more critical.

“Manatees feed on smooth cordgrass and other emergent vegetation abundant in our fresh and brackish water marshes,” George said. “When manatees arrive in Georgia, they have essentially unlimited food.”

Boaters can reduce their risk to manatees by respecting low-speed and no-wake zones, especially around docks where large mammals eat algae growing on structures. George also advised sticking to the deepest channels when navigating tidal rivers and streams. The manatees “are often right at the edge of the marsh,” he said, feeding on Spartina alterniflora, or salt marsh cordgrass.

Boaters and others are also encouraged to report any dead manatees and sea turtles they see.

MNR monitors sea turtle and manatee mortality through the Sea Turtle and Marine Mammal Stranding and Rescue Networks. Information gathered, including from autopsies to assess cause of death, provides the primary clue to threats to these animals in Georgia’s coastal waters.

Report stranded sea turtles in Georgia by calling DNR at 800-2-SAVE-ME (800-272-8363). Stranding updates are available at seaturtle.org/strand/summary (choose Georgia in “Select a Program”).

Manatees sometimes gather in groups to socialize. Large mating “herds” can exceed 20 individuals.

Boaters can help protect manatees by:

♦ Look for manatees before starting your boat’s engine.

♦ Use caution when navigating in shallow water and along marsh. Manatees cannot dive far from boats in these areas.

♦ Heed “slow speed”, “no wake” and manatee warning signs, especially around docks.

♦ Wear polarized sunglasses to reduce glare and make it easier to spot manatees below the surface.

♦ Watch for trails of large whirlpools in the water called footprints that can be caused by manatees diving away from the boat.

♦ Never feed manatees or give them fresh water. This could teach animals to approach docks, putting them at greater risk of collision with a boat.

♦ Never chase, harass or play with manatees. This can be harmful to manatees and is illegal.

From sea turtles to bald eagles, MNR’s Wildlife Conservation Section works to conserve Georgia’s rare species and other wildlife not legally fished or hunted, as well as rare plants and natural habitats. The agency depends primarily on fundraising, grants and contributions. This makes public support essential.

Georgians can help by supporting the state’s Nongame Wildlife Conservation Fund. Here’s how:

♦ Buy a DNR eagle or monarch butterfly license plate, or renew one of the old plate designs, including the hummingbird. Most royalties are dedicated to wildlife. Upgrade to a wild label for just $25 more than a standard plate. Details at georgiawildlife.com/licenseplates.

♦ Donate at gooutdoorsgeorgia.com. Click on “Licenses and Permits” and log in to donate. There’s even an option to round up for wildlife.

♦ Contribute to the Georgia Wildlife Conservation Fund when filing state income taxes, line 30 on Form 500 or line 10 on Form 500EZ. Giving is easy and every donation helps.

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