Last Sunday, a boat captain on a fishing charter plying the waters of Florida’s Homosassa River, reported a shocking sight: a manatee with the word “TRUMP” written on its back.
As Matthew Beck of the Citrus County Chronicle reports, officials with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) are now investigating the harassment of the federally protected marine mammal. Any individuals found responsible could face fines of $50,000 as well as the potential of a year in federal prison.
As of now, it's unclear whether the manatee was injured during the incident. Adriana Brasileiro of the Miami Herald quotes a statement from the USFWS saying the manatee did not appear seriously injured, “as it seems the word was written in algae on the animal’s back.”
The Center for Biological Diversity has put up a $5,000 reward for any information that helps apprehend those responsible, per the Times.
“It’s heartbreaking that this manatee was subjected to this vile, criminal act,” Jaclyn Lopez, the nonprofit’s Florida director, tells the Herald. “It’s clear that whoever harmed this defenseless, gentle giant is capable of doing grave violence and needs to be apprehended immediately.”
According to the Chronicle, the animal is a West Indian manatee, a species that is known to congregate in Citrus County’s secluded, spring-fed waters around this time of year.
“This is very out of character for this community," Craig Cavanna, senior federal wildlife officer and current investigating officer, tells the Chronicle. "Wildlife conservation is a core value in Citrus County. That’s why it’s called the Nature Coast.”
Manatees are colloquially known as “sea cows” for their somewhat bovine appearances and penchant for munching sea grass. The manatee is Florida’s state marine mammal and boasts an impressive recovery story in the state. Manatees first received federal protections under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1967, when only several hundred individuals were left in the wild. It wasn't until 2017 when their numbers surpassed 6,000 individuals that the species was downgraded to “threatened,” reports Becky Ferreira for Vice.
Today, manatees still face serious threats to their survival. One of the animals' top threats is collisions with speed boats. Since 2016, manatee deaths by boat collisions have increased annually. By the end of 2019, a record-breaking 130 manatees had been killed by boaters, the Tampa Bay Times' Craig Pittman reported in 2019. Combined with habitat loss and fragmentation, cold weather, tropical storms and hurricanes, manatees are still dying at steep rates. In recent years, Florida's red tides—massive toxic algae blooms accelerated by increased extreme weather—have wiped out several hundred of the iconic marine mammals annually. In 2013, a red tide and cool weather wiped out more than 800 manatees, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Anyone with information relating to the most recent incident should contact the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 1-888-404-3922 or the USFWS wildlife crime tips hotline at 1-844-397-8477 and email at FWS_Tips@FWS.gov.