Happy #ManateeAppreciationDay! Gentle and solitary, West Indian manatees, Trichechus manatus, wander through both fresh and salt water. They keep to warm regions because they have no blubber, which insulates other marine mammals living in colder climates. Manatees also lack hind limbs needed to maneuver on land; they are born in water and remain there throughout their lives. Most marine mammals eat fish or invertebrates, but manatees feed only on seagrass and other plants growing in shallow water. Grazing and resting just below the surface, these “sea cows” come up for air every few minutes.
In 2001, my colleagues and I at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California, founded the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation. Core to our programme was an interdisciplinary summer course, which brought together students ranging from marine biologists to physical oceanographers, economists and anthropologists. We thought of it as medical school for the ocean.
We began with what we thought was a logical starting point — the state of the ocean. These were depressing lectures. Doom and gloom consumed the entire course. Basically, we were training our students to write ever-more-refined obituaries for the seas.
We quickly realized the folly of focusing so much on the problems — we could see it on our students’ faces. There had to be another way. After all, in medical school the focus is on preserving life, not describing death. So in 2009, my husband Jeremy Jackson and I began running symposia at academic meetings called ‘Beyond the Obituaries’, which were about success stories in ocean conservation. A small workshop in 2014 led to a Twitter campaign, #OceanOptimism, which has now reached more than 76 million Twitter accounts.
This journey has taught me several lessons. First, unrelenting doom and gloom in the absence of solutions is not effective. Social scientists have known for decades that large problems without solutions lead to apathy, not action. Yet much of conservation communication still seems to be focused on scaring people into caring.
As a community, we seem to be addicted to despair. For example, when the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus) was bumped down from endangered to threatened status under the US Endangered Species Act last month, many environmentalists protested and worried about relaxed protections, rather than celebrating the practices (boat speed limits and winter-refuge safeguards) that enabled the animals’ partial recovery.
Second, an extraordinary number of success stories are largely unknown — not just to the general public but also to conservation scientists, policymakers and philanthropists. Searching Twitter for #OceanOptimism (and its offspring #EarthOptimism) is still one of the best ways to find examples. My favourite instance of unrecognized success was the 2015 announcement of the recovery of seagrasses in Tampa Bay, Florida, to 1950s levels. Of the 300 or so people I have mentioned this to (including 200 marine scientists at a research meeting in Tampa), fewer than 10 were aware of this important conservation achievement, which was the result of keeping fertilizer-filled run-off waters from flowing into the bay. Elsewhere, stocks of Chilean loco (an edible sea snail), Madagascar octopus and marine fish in parts of the Philippines are healthier thanks to the establishment of small-scale, locally empowered, sustainable fisheries.
Did you know November is Manatee Awareness Month? Manatees are the official marine mammal of Florida. Sailors once mistook them for mermaids, hence the name of the manatees’ scientific order, Sirenia. There are three species of manatees in the world: The West Indian manatee, the West African manatee and the Amazonian manatee. All are vulnerable under the IUCN Red List. But only one—the West Indian manatee—lives in the United States, where it’s federally endangered. It’s estimated less than 10,000 mature manatees remain in the wild. Collisions with boats are the single greatest threat to their survival, followed by loss of warm-water habitats. But if you like going out on the water, you can help protect them! The best tips are to keep a watchful eye for manatees or manatee signs, reduce your speed, and avoid shallow areas with seagrass beds where they could be feeding. (Photo: John Parker/Smithsonian Environmental Research Center)
Everglades National Park in Florida is the largest tropical wilderness in the United States east of the Mississippi River, covering more than 1.5 million acres. The park was established in 1934 to protect the area’s fragile ecosystem and is home to 36 threatened or protected species including the American crocodile and West Indian manatee.
Our November #conservationlands15 Ends with the Top 15 Places to View Wildlife on the BLM’s National Conservation Lands!
1. Steese National Conservation Area, AK. The Steese NCA provides habitat for moose, dall sheep, grizzly bear, black bear, small game, raptors, waterfowl and numerous other species of small mammals and birds. Portions of the Steese NCA are used by the White Mountains and Fortymile caribou herds.
2. King Range National Conservation Area, CA. At the King Range NCA, offshore rocks, tidepools and kelp beds are inhabited by seals, sea lions and a variety of marine birds; California grey whales can be spotted offshore in winter and spring.
3. Browns Canyon National Monument, CO. Browns Canyon NM visitors can spot iconic mammals such as Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, black bear, mountain lion and elk. Fishermen enjoy Gold Medal Trout waters, with a consistent standing stock of 60 pounds per acre.
4. Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse Outstanding Natural Area, FL. Despite its urban setting, the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse ONA is home to a wide array of wildlife, from osprey and snowy egret to bobcat to west Indian manatee.
5. Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area, ID. The deep canyon of the Snake River, with its crags and crevices and thermal updrafts, is home to the greatest concentration of nesting birds of prey in North America – and perhaps, the world. Some 800 pairs of hawks, owls, eagles and falcons come each spring to mate and raise their young.
6. Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, MT. The Upper Missouri River Breaks NM contains a variety of wildlife habitat types, supporting 60 species of mammals, 233 species of birds, 20 species of amphibians and reptiles, and 49 species of fish. The river provides habitat for one of the six remaining paddlefish populations (and perhaps the largest) in the US, as well as the endangered pallid sturgeon and shovelnose sturgeon.
7. Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, NM. The Río Grande del Norte NM is comprised of rugged, wide open plains cut by steep canyons. Several species of bats make their home in the gorge, which also provides important nesting habitat for the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher. Large mammals find their winter homes on the plateau alongside a population of rare Gunnison’s prairie dogs.
8. Black Rock High Rock Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area, Soldier Meadows Area of Critical Environmental Concern, NV. Soldier Meadows Area ACEC was designated to protect the desert dace, a threatened fish listed under the Endangered Species Act. The desert dace are only known to occur within the hot springs in the Soldier Meadows area and nowhere else in the world.
9. San Juan Islands National Monument, WA. The diverse habitats found on these islands provide a refuge for countless species of mammals, birds, and insects, including the island marbled butterfly, which was once thought to be extinct.
10. Deep Creek Mountains Wilderness Study Area, UT. The Deep Creek Mountains WSA provides crucial habitat for Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, mule deer, elk and pronghorn. Found in several streams in the Deep Creek Mountains is a rare insect, the giant stonefly, which is only found elsewhere in watercourses flowing to the Pacific Ocean.
11. Ferris Mountain Wilderness Study Area, WY. The Ferris Mountain WSA is known for ecological diversity along with outstanding geological and recreational characteristics. Pine marten, blue grouse, and snowshoe hare take up residence in some of the patches of old growth forest.
12. Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, OR. Harbor seals are often on the coastal rocks and can be seen caring for their pups in spring. During winter and spring, the area offers outstanding whale watching opportunities.
13. Paria Canyon Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, AZ. The remote and unspoiled, 280,000-acre Vermilion Cliffs NM offers opportunities to view endangered California condors.
14. San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, AZ. The San Pedro Riparian NCA contains a Globally Important Bird Area which attracts thousands of birdwatchers from all over the world each year.
15. Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, OR. The Cascade-Siskiyou NM is the first national monument in the United States set aside solely to protect biodiversity.
Thanks for following this month’s #conservationlands15 takeover. Join us next month for movie locations on National Conservation Lands.
A non-profit legal organization has filed suit to force the federal government to reclassify the manatee from endangered to threatened, reopening the bitter fight over efforts to protect the species from boats.
See you in a few days tumblr :O) Going to the west coast of Florida to participate in a manatee health assessment, visiting MOTE Marine Laboratory to hear a talk by Randy Wells and tour the facility, and finally to conduct a manatee necropsy!