BRUNSWICK — With sea turtle and manatee sightings on the rise on Georgia’s coast, boaters should be on the lookout for these animals.
Boat strikes are a leading cause of sea turtle strandings and manatee injuries and deaths. Manatees and all sea turtle species found in Georgia are protected by federal and state laws.
Tips differ on what to watch for in the coast’s murky waters. A “footprint” of swirls may mark a 1-ton manatee under water. A 300-pound loggerhead sea turtle may show only its head when it surfaces.
The best advice: Be aware, and be prepared to slow down or steer clear.
State sea turtle program coordinator Mark Dodd of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources said that while sea turtles are considered common on the ocean side of barrier islands, they frequent tidal waters.
“Sea turtles aren’t just in the ocean,” he said. “They’re also in the tidal creeks and sounds.”
In 2013, about 25 percent of sea turtles found dead or injured on the beach or stranded in Georgia suffered injuries consistent with being hit by a boat. And while federally threatened loggerhead sea turtles set another nesting record for the state last year — 2,289 nests — boat strikes that kill or injure reproductive females undermine those gains.
Manatees, federally listed as endangered, share a similar problem. Drawn north by warm waters and abundant marsh grass and other aquatic vegetation, manatees are found in all Georgia tidal rivers, estuaries and near-shore marine waters, mostly east of Interstate 95. Since 2000, 31 percent of the dead manatees found in Georgia waters died as a result of watercraft collisions.
There already have been numerous reports of manatees along the southern portion of Georgia’s coast, said wildlife biologist Clay George of DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section.
“We would expect their numbers to be increasing throughout Coastal Georgia over the next month,” he said.
That means boaters also should be on the lookout for these massive marine mammals.
Heeding low-speed and no-wake zones, particularly around docks where manatees eat algae growing on the structures, will reduce collision risks. So will sticking to the deeper channels when boating in tidal rivers and creeks. George said manatees “are often right along the edge of the marsh,” feeding on salt-marsh cordgrass.
Boaters who hit a manatee or sea turtle are urged to stand by and immediately contact the DNR at 800-272-8363. This provides biologists the best chance to help the animal and gather valuable scientific data. Boaters will not be charged if they were operating their boat responsibly and the collision was an accident.
Boaters and others also are encouraged to report any dead manatees and sea turtles they see. If the turtle is tagged, include the tag color and number in the report if possible.
DNR monitors sea turtle and manatee mortality through the Marine Turtle and Marine Mammal Stranding and Salvage Networks. The information gleaned, including from necropsies to evaluate cause of death, provides the primary index for threats to sea turtles and marine mammals in coastal waters.
Regular updates on sea turtle strandings are available at www.georgiawildlife.com and clicking the “Reported Strandings” box.