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Fewer Boats Means a Safer Spring for Miami's Marine Creatures

Over the past few weeks, amateur photographers have been capturing images and video of manatees, turtles, and sawfish in South Florida waterways and posting them on social media.

Stay-at-home orders have meant fewer boats out on the water. And that's meant a safer spring vacation for Miami's aquatic creatures, many of which are coming back to shore. The nonprofit advocacy group Miami Waterkeeper has received alerts and videos from residents of interesting species they've never seen before, including a particularly rare find: endangered smalltooth sawfish in Biscayne Bay.

"Somebody reported they saw two smalltooth sawfish near Margaret Pace Park. I don't think we've seen sawfish in that part of the bay before," Miami Waterkeeper's executive director, Rachel Silverstein, says.

According to Silverstein, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists said it was the first time two of the species were filmed together in Biscayne Bay.

Smalltooth sawfish are normally shy, Silverstein says, and also rare. Because of overfishing, much of their food supply has disappeared, and they also run the risk of getting caught in fishing nets. Coastal mangroves, their natural habitat, have largely vanished from Miami coastlines.

But sawfish aren't the only marine animals making an appearance in the middle of Florida's lockdown. With spring underway, some species are swimming to Miami for warmer waters, including everybody's favorite sea cow: the manatee.

Twitter user Micah Gill posted a video of a herd of about 17 manatees he saw in Biscayne Bay on March 22.

"This is crazy! Also, can I point out, how clear is this water? Wow," Gill says in the video.

Reports of manatees swimming close to shore have popped up in other parts of Florida as well. A couple of manatees munched on grass along the shore in a woman's backyard in Palm Bay, about an hour southeast of Orlando. A video she posted on TikTok has racked up more than 580,000 views.

Normally, this would be the season for boaters to take to Miami's waterways for springtime leisure, which can sometimes be harmful to manatees and other marine life. But boat launches and marinas in Miami-Dade have been shuttered since the mayor issued an emergency order March 21 to help curb the spread of the new coronavirus. In the absence of boaters, manatees and other wildlife have been safe to roam without the threat of getting hit by a runaway speedboat.

Patrick Rose, a biologist and the executive director of Save the Manatee Club, says that although he wishes people weren't forced to stay home, there's a silver lining for wildlife.

"I think there is a positive element for manatees," he says of the lockdown.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reports monthly manatee mortality rates across Florida. In March 2019, 17 manatee deaths were attributed to boating accidents. This past March, preliminary data from the agency shows just nine deaths by watercraft across the state.

Rose says 60 percent of manatees killed by boats die because of the force of impact from vessels traveling too fast in unregulated areas, and the other 40 percent die from cuts caused by propellers. Without boaters on the water, the manatees will likely have a safer spring.

Overall, Silverstein says, increased animal awareness has resulted from undisturbed waters and more people's interest in exploring the world outside their windows.

"It's a combo of quiet water and people paying more attention. Boat noise is a kind of pollution and changes animal behavior," she says. "This also highlights the importance of the community being engaged in what's going on in waterways."

Silverstein hopes the increase in social media posts means people are realizing the preciousness of wildlife in South Florida and becoming interested in helping to protect it.

"The researchers involved in conservation are really excited," she says. "I hope people are more aware when things return to normal."

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