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Manatee deaths up in Florida last year

Recent mortality data showed a record 416 manatees died in Florida waters, up from 396 in 2005.

Recent mortality data showed a record 416 manatees died in Florida waters, up from 396 in 2005.

While the cause of the sea cow’s death could not be determined in the majority of those deaths, 86 were watercraft-related, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. That’s the second-highest number of deaths for that category on record.

“These numbers shed some light on the measures we can take in our commitment to reducing human-related threats to manatees and possible other threats,” says FWC chairman Rodney Barreto.

Red tide also was to blame in a number of manatee deaths last year. Preliminary data suggests algal blooms may have caused 61 manatee deaths in 2006, according to the FWC.

The number of manatee deaths in 2006 was the highest in the past five years, and significantly higher than the five-year average of 336 deaths.

While the number of watercraft-related deaths was higher than in the previous few years, the percentage of deaths it represented — 21 percent — was lower than the five-year average of 24 percent.

BrevardCounty topped the number of watercraft-related deaths with 20, followed by LeeCounty with 19 and BrowardCounty with seven.

The increase in deaths could actually be an indicator of an increase in the manatee population, says David Ray, executive vice president of the Marine Industries Association of Florida.

“It’s a bad thing that more manatees are killed, but it’s a very good thing that the population is growing — and we believe [it is growing] dramatically,” he says.

By some estimates close to 4,000 manatees live in Florida’s waters, but some scientists say the number is actually two to three times higher, according to Ray. That’s because the 4,000 number is taken from an aerial count, and it can be difficult to see the animals from a plane.

The FWC says the state’s manatee population is stable or growing in all regions except the southwest, which could contain more than a third of the statewide population.

In June the agency downlisted the manatee from endangered to threatened status on the state level, a move questioned by groups such as the Save the Manatee Club.

“By voting to change the manatee’s status from endangered to threatened, the state of Florida is saying that manatees are doing better,” says Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club. “That’s not the case at all, and the 2006 statistics [demonstrate] that.”

The FWC is working on the state’s first manatee management plan, which, according to the agency, examines past protections and outlines additional measures to reduce stress on manatees during the winter.

The Save the Manatee Club says the plan, as proposed, will not protect the manatees and actually allows for a decline in the population.

“We are very concerned that if the FWC proceeds to downlist manatees under the draft plan, there will be a rollback in manatee protection, when an increase in protection is what is actually needed,” Rose says.

To deal specifically with the watercraft-related deaths, the FWC announced it would enforce manatee speed zones. Also, it urges boaters who hit manatees to report the accidents because such reports provide valuable information for sharpening manatee-protection efforts.

“In my opinion, most boaters do obey the manatee speed limits, so I don’t think it’s going to have a huge impact,” Ray says. The problem, he says, is that it’s often difficult to see a manatee from a boat. “Even when they come to the surface to breathe, it’s only for a short time so there are few ripples in the water to indicate where they are,” he says.