American Oceans

Is It Illegal to Touch a Manatee?

Manatees are a beloved and iconic species of marine mammals found in the warm waters of Florida.

a person snorkeling and touching a manatee

These gentle giants are known for their slow-moving and docile nature, making them a popular attraction for tourists and locals alike. However, many people are unsure about the legality of touching or interacting with manatees.

The answer is clear: it is illegal to touch, feed, harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, annoy or molest manatees.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 both make it illegal to harass, hunt, capture or kill any marine mammal, including manatees.

Despite their friendly appearance, manatees are sensitive creatures that require protection from human interference to survive. Touching or interacting with manatees can cause them stress, disrupt their natural behaviors, and even lead to injury or death.


What is a Manatee?

Manatees are large, herbivorous marine mammals that belong to the order Sirenia. They are also known as sea cows and are related to dugongs and the extinct Steller’s sea cow.

a manatee swimming underwater near an anchor chain

The West Indian manatee is the most common species found in the United States and is found in the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and the southeastern United States.

Manatees are gray or brown in color and are generally slow-moving, gentle creatures that can grow up to 13 feet in length and weigh up to 1,300 pounds.

They have a broad, flat tail that is used for propulsion and a pair of front flippers that are used for steering and maneuvering. They are also known for their unique snouts, which are covered in bristly hairs that help them sense their surroundings.

Manatees are an endangered species and are considered to be one of the most imperiled species in the world.

They are protected under federal law by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which makes it illegal to harass, hunt, capture, or kill any marine mammal.

In addition to being protected by federal law, manatees are also protected by state law in Florida, where they are found in large numbers. The Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act makes it illegal to harass, hunt, capture, or kill any manatee and also prohibits touching or feeding these animals.


Why are manatees protected?

Manatees are marine mammals that have been protected under several laws and acts due to their endangered status.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 make it illegal to harass, hunt, capture, or kill any marine mammal, including manatees.

a manatee calf and its mother

The Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978 provides further protection to manatees by making it illegal to feed, harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, annoy, or molest them.

Manatees are considered an endangered species due to several factors, including habitat loss, boat strikes, red tide, and cold stress. These factors have contributed to the decline of manatee populations, making it crucial to protect them from harm and harassment.

The Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act was enacted to protect manatees in their natural habitat, including their feeding, breeding, and resting areas. The act also prohibits the disturbance of manatees during their migration periods.

The conservation of manatees is critical to the ecosystem as they play an essential role in maintaining the balance of the aquatic environment.

Manatees are known as “ecosystem engineers” as they graze on aquatic plants, which helps prevent the overgrowth of algae and other plants that can harm the ecosystem.


Federal and state laws

Both federal and state laws protect manatees. The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 make it illegal to harass, hunt, capture, or kill any marine mammal, including manatees.

indian manatees eating plants

In addition, the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act protects manatees and their habitat in Florida. This law makes it illegal to molest, harass, disturb, or feed a manatee.

Touching a manatee can result in a fine of up to $500 and/or a jail term of up to 60 days.


Consequences of touching a manatee

Touching a manatee can have serious consequences for both the animal and the human. Manatees are wild animals and can become aggressive if they feel threatened.

Manatee being touched by a human

Touching a manatee can also disrupt its natural behavior and cause stress, which can lead to cold-stress syndrome, a potentially fatal condition.

Manatees are also at risk of boat strikes, and touching them can cause them to approach boats more frequently, putting them in danger.


How to safely observe manatees

The best way to observe manatees is through passive observation. This means watching them from a distance without disturbing them.

manatee swimming

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in Florida is a popular spot for manatee watching. Visitors can observe manatees from boardwalks or by snorkeling in designated areas.

To avoid disturbing manatees, visitors should wear polarized sunglasses and avoid excessive noise and splashing.

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