Manatees, Mermaids, and Wetland Conservation

Manatees are hard not to love. It’s not exactly that they’re charismatic – slow and ponderous, their beady little eyes constantly on the prowl for the next snack. But nonetheless, they capture the hearts of many people, for their cuteness, playfulness, and tendency to appear in warm water of places like Florida, which gives people easy access to their antics. I’ve written about them before, watching them on live cam in Homosassa Springs while I ate lunch during the lock-down in Pennsylvania.

So, that’s manatees. And mermaids? It seems far-fetched but most of us have heard the story that these ponderous animals gave rise to the legend of the mermaid. The familiar tale – at least the one I always heard – is that lonely seamen in the West Indies saw manatees at a distance nursing their young out of the water (something for which I’ve found no evidence at all) and imagined they were marine goddesses with long tresses and graceful arms. I don’t see it personally, and I’m now imagining Hans Christian Andersen rocking “The Little Sea Cow.” Disney’s definitely missed an opportunity here.

Here’s a mermaid you might know, alongside a more anatomically correct version.

Mermaids have, in fact, been integrated into our culture for a long time, well before Western Europeans made it to the tropics to see Sirenians for themselves. Typically a mermaid is portrayed as having the top half of a woman, and the bottom half of a fish (as distinct from sirens, which originally were portrayed as half bird). The first known stories of mermaids come from Assyria around 1000BC. The goddess Atargatis was the subject of a complex set of myths which one way or another end up with somebody jumping into a lake and taking the form of a half-fish. Here’s a coin we prepared earlier.

The reverse of a coin of Demetrius III, depicts fish-bodied Atargatis, veiled, holding the egg (compare with the birth of Syrian Venus from egg, flanked by barley stalks). Source: Wikimedia Commons

So whole West Indies association? That’s actually from Christopher Columbus. On January 9, 1493, he was sailing near what is now the Dominican Republic, and described three manatees as “mermaids,” with the comment that they are “not half as beautiful as they are painted.” As is so often the case, we contextualize things based on what we know.

However, when Western people did discover them, much like the tale of the Dodo and so many others, things didn’t go so well. Worst case scenario was the Steller’s Sea Cow, Hydrodamalis gigas, described by Georg Wilhelm Steller in 1741. Adults were a massive 9-11 tons, with lengths up to 30 ft. Steller’s sea cows were likely to have influenced the community composition of the kelp forests they inhabited, boosting their productivity and resilience to environmental stressors by allowing increased light through the dense kelp, enhancing forest regeneration. Their skin was thick, hairless, and rough, which led Steller to describe it as resembling “more the bark of an old oak tree, than the skin of an animal.” Scientists from Leipzig University and the University of California, show that the ancient genome of Steller’s sea cow reveals functional changes responsible for the bark-like skin and adaptation to cold.

Steller’s Sea Cow (Hydrodamalis gigas) model at the Natural History Museum in London, England. Image: Emőke Dénes Wikimedia Commons

By 1768, just twenty-seven years after it had been discovered by Europeans, the species was extinct, hunted to nothing for its fat by fur traders and seal hunters. To be fair, the species was by that time reduced to a minuscule fraction of its Pleistocene range, which had originally stretched from Japan, across Alaska, and down as far as California. Still, the species is gone – and it was on our watch. Tragically, its modern relatives could go too. Just a few days ago, CBS put out a piece with the ominous headline “Florida manatees under threat of mass starvation.”

It seems that with winter approaching, Florida’s manatees are heading to warmer waters. But that’s also where they are facing a life-threatening collapse of their seagrass habitat. The cause is human-generated pollution and algae due to runoff that shades the grass and prevents it from growing. Efforts to keep pollution out of the water are not enough and manatees are dying in grave numbers.

Florida has around 7,500 of them living in the wild, according to the state wildlife commission. Last year a record 1,100 manatees died, many after starving at the Indian River Lagoon. About 200 miles north of Biscayne Bay, the lagoon is a critical winter hangout for manatees, warmed by the nearby Cape Canaveral power plant. But pollution and algae now block the sunlight, turning the lagoon into a seagrass desert.” – CBS

Even with the supplement of 100 tons of lettuce from Florida wildlife officials, their future looks bleak unless the health of their habitat is restored. The hard part is that this threat has been known for a while. In 2009 a group of researchers published a study showing the worldwide collapse in seagrass habitat.

Global map indicating changes in seagrass area plotted by coastline regions. Changes in seagrass areal extent at each site are defined as declining (red) or increasing (green) when areal extent changed by >10%, or no detectable change (yellow) when final area was within ±10% of the initial area. There were 131 sites in North America, 34 sites in Europe, and 40 sites in Australia. Source: Michelle Waycott et al.2009 (link in text).

We’re lucky to have those dedicated people, with their heads of lettuce and their aerial surveys. Action at the local level is critical. But with the worsening global situation, worldwide action is also needed. Fortunately, there’s the Ramsar Convention. “The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat” (what a title!) is an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands. Every three years, representatives of the contracting parties (nations) meet as the “Conference of the Contracting Parties” (COP), the policy-making organ of the convention which adopts decisions to administer the work of the convention and implement its objectives. COP14 took place last month in Geneva, hosted by the People’s Republic of China, with the theme: ‘Wetland Action for People and Nature’, COP14 saw representatives from 146 Contracting Parties and 55 observer organizations convene to negotiate 24 draft resolutions aimed at strengthening Parties’ conservation and wise use of all wetlands.

What’s in those 24 draft resolutions? Here’s one that resonates with me: Draft resolution on integrating wetland protection, conservation,  and restoration, sustainable use and management into national sustainable development strategies. RECOMMENDS that Parties conduct systematic national wetland inventories, using the New Toolkit for National Wetland Inventories of 2020, assess the status and trends of wetlands, analyze national needs and gaps for wetland conservation, develop integrated, systematic and adaptive conservation and restoration planning, and develop integrated national management actions for wetlands and other associated ecosystems as appropriate.

While it doesn’t specifically address habitat for manatees (or mermaids, for that matter), it does deploy international expertise to lend weight to national agencies protecting and restoring wetlands locally. While this may seem more arcane than being up to your waist in seawater plug planting Poseidonia, it does highlight that urgent action is needed at every level where change can happen.

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