Updated: Jun 26, 2021
Protecting the ocean and its inhabitants often begins with education. The obstacles marine wildlife face are too frequently due to preventable human actions, such as watercraft strikes, exploitative fishing, or harmful interaction. Education equips people to be active in wildlife conservation, enabling them to support organizations, influence policies, and spread awareness to others. Today, marine biologists and conservationists around the world are working to protect local marine life, while emphasizing community education. Protecting marine life of a specific region benefits ecosystems well beyond the immediate habitat, with effects radiating throughout the connected food web and migratory regions. One exemplary case of this protection is in South Florida, where manatees, sharks, sea turtles, and cetaceans require close conservation.
Florida’s manatees are one of the state’s most beloved marine animals, but they continue to face anthropogenic threats, even since their protection in the 1890’s. Though they’re impacted by marine litter and fishing gear entanglement, their most significant threat is watercraft strikes, often causing severe damage to manatees’ tails and dorsums. Dr. Pat Quinn, a Senior Natural Resource Specialist in Florida, emphasizes the importance of implementing protection plans such as regulated boat speed zones in areas frequented by manatees, education of the public through signage and outreach, and the use of aerial surveys to track local populations.
Sharks, another Florida resident, require a different approach in their conservation due to their often misunderstood nature. As keystone species, sharks stabilize the food web and maintain a healthy ecosystem; even so, at least 100 million sharks are killed globally each year for shark products, such as shark fin soup. Nova Southeastern University's Dr. Derek Burkholder contributes to critical shark conservation through research and education, using satellite tags and tracking to better manage their populations. This tactic also helps predict the behaviors of nesting sea turtles, such as loggerhead sea turtles.
All five of the sea turtle species found around Florida are endangered, requiring close monitoring of their nests and hatchlings. Artificial light pollution is a significant threat to hatchlings, as they can confuse artificial light for the moon reflecting on the ocean, leading them away from the water. To reduce the impact of light pollution, some suggest using tinted windows or Turtle Safe Lighting, which is less disruptive to hatchlings. However, human impact can be more direct on some marine life.
Cetaceans in Florida and around the world, such as whales, dolphins, and porpoises, can become stranded in the water or on the beach, often requiring assistance. Strandings can occur for a variety of reasons such as weather changes, disease, following prey inshore, or human-related causes, including oil spills and fishing lines. Laura Eldredge, a volunteer coordinator for the Marine Animal Rescue Society (MARS) in Florida, emphasizes that if an untrained person finds a stranded cetacean, they should not attempt to push it back into the water. Although the person may have intentions to help the animal, stranded cetaceans often require medical attention and may restrand, causing further harm to the animal. Beyond their unique and intelligent behaviors, cetaceans also play a crucial role as the “ocean’s fertilizer”. Their excrement and ability to dive throughout the water column helps to circulate essential nutrients and provide for the ocean’s dynamic food web, making their conservation and protection of extreme importance.
The dedicated work of conservationists and marine biologists, like those described here, only reaches so far without community education. Advocates in Florida push for the protection of marine animals, but there is always more that can be done around the world. We encourage readers to learn more about local or global marine wildlife and its anthropogenic threats, so they can contribute to marine conservation and protect these ecosystems for future generations.