The number of Florida manatees, both dead and alive, continues to climb.
This week, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission released preliminary results of an annual count that recorded 6,620 manatees lumbering in the warm waters of Florida’s lagoons, springs and canals. The count comes a year after federal wildlife officials announced plans to remove manatees from the endangered species list and marks the third straight year that esimated population numbers have increased.
But the aerial survey also reflects a growing trend by manatees to huddle in waters heated by power plants and a similar upward creep in the number of deaths.
Calling waters artificially heated a “real wild card,” Katie Tripp, director of science and conservation for the Save the Manatee Club, worries that regulators are relying too heavily on habitat they can’t control.
“Some power plants have 1,200 animals, like in Brevard County,” she said. “We want manatees to be recovered. But I’m not going to celebrate some artificial victory.”
This year's count was conducted by 15 observers who reported ideal conditions for surveying: cool temperatures, clear skies and little wind. The team counted 3,488 manatees on the east coast and 3,132 on the west coast. Last year, counters tallied 6,250 manatees. In 2015, they counted 6,063, passing the 6,000 mark for the first time.
The count comes as the number of deaths generally has been trending upward. Last year, 520 manatees died, with 104 killed by boats, a new record. The year before, 405 died. A record 828 deaths were recorded in 2013.
Florida’s population of manatees, which move inland during chilly winter months, were long hunted for hides and meat but nearly disappeared as Florida boomed and snowbirds flocked to the warm waters inhabited by manatees. By the time a first aerial count was conducted in 1991, surveyors found just under 1,300.
With aggressive efforts by the state and conservationists, including no wake zones to protect the slow-moving mammals, the population expanded by more than 500 percent, prompting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last year to announce plans to down-list manatees to threatened.
“The relatively high counts we have seen for the past three years underscore the importance of warm water habitat to manatees in Florida,” biologist Gil McRae, director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, said in a statement. “The FWC will continue to work diligently with our many partners to ensure the long-term viability of these habitats and the well-being of the manatee population.”
But Tripp said with so many manatees congregating around power plants — six of the manatees’ 17 wintering habitats are power plants — the need to preserve their natural habitat in the state’s warm springs diminishes. Manatees wintering near power plants also fare worse during sometimes fatal cold snaps. A 2010 bitter cold snap was blamed for killing up to 500.
“Ideally you have manatees at all natural sites, which you would have protected for them,” she said. “The management community has no control over how Florida makes its power or if there’s a cheaper alternative or if the plants shut down. ... There’s no real reason to think those plants are going to exist forever.”
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