Expands essential habitat for hundreds of manatees.
The Great Florida Riverway can Provide Much-needed Habitat for Manatees
This year, 2021, is the deadliest on record for manatees. Many of those deaths are connected to starvation caused by seagrass losses due to algal blooms fueled by water pollution and excess nutrients. Looking beyond the current crisis, however, loss and degradation of natural habitat that provides forage and warm water essential to manatees’ survival remains their greatest long-term threat. Restoring essential habitat such as the springs of the Ocklawaha River and Silver Springs is crucial to ensure the preservation of this beloved species. The Great Florida Riverway, a 217-mile system of rivers and springs flowing north from Lake Apopka and the Green Swamp to the Atlantic Ocean via the Ocklawaha, Silver, and St. Johns rivers, contains good manatee habitat that could support 100s more manatees if restored.
Some Manatees are Already Maneuvering the Buckman Lock to the Ocklawaha River
The St. Johns River has been designated critical habitat for manatees since 1976, which means that it has biological and physical characteristics that are essential for manatee conservation. According to data from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, as of July 2021, 102 unique manatees use the Ocklawaha River system, despite having to enter through the Buckman Lock to travel between the Rodman Reservoir and the St. Johns River. Sighting numbers reported are not the same as unique manatees. Sightings include counts of the same manatees using the lock system repeatedly.
Warm Water Winter Habitat is Essential for Manatee Survival
A natural, free-flowing system of rivers and springs would provide more beneficial habitat to manatees than the Rodman Reservoir, by allowing unrestricted access to warm water sources. Manatees have little body fat, and warm water habitat is essential to their survival in the winter months.
Larger Uncovered Ocklawaha Springs Provide Ideal Manatee Habitat
Breaching the Rodman/Kirkpatrick Dam will uncover 20 Ocklawaha River springs that are currently submerged beneath artificially high-water levels created by the dam, meaning that manatees can’t take advantage of their year-round warm temperatures. Some of these, including Marion Blue Spring, Hasty Greene Spring, and the Cannon Spring Complex, could supply habitat for 100 manatees or more, each.
A Free-flowing River can Promote Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Growth
Clearer, cooler water will support healthy submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) in the St. Johns River from Welaka to Palatka to Jacksonville. SAV is an essential food source for manatees.
Silver River and Silver Springs Provide Large Inland Manatee Viewing Area
Additionally, restoring the Ocklawaha will allow manatees unimpeded access to the Silver River and Silver Springs, which could also serve as important warm water winter habitat for hundreds more manatees if adequate protections are put in place. Manatee viewing would increase park visitation.