Published: Thu, February 23, 2017
Sci-tech | By Jose Becker

Record manatees seen in statewide count

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) count found the highest number of sea cows since 1991 and the third straight year of a minimum count greater than 6,000 during its annual flyover of popular manatee spots. That's up from between 100 to 180 estimated in 2014.

Last year, observers found 6,250 manatees swimming in the state's waters.

Between Jan. 30 and February 2, 15 people from 10 organizations counted 3,488 individuals on the state's east coast and 3,132 on the west coast, for a grand total of 6,620 manatees. The West Indian manatee includes the Florida manatee. Manatees are more easily counted a few days after a cold front when it is slightly warmer, clear and windless.

"Successful conservation of manatees is a product of the commitment made by many different organizations over multiple decades", said Gil McRae, FWC biologist and head of the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg.

Manatees use warm water sites, like Blue Spring and areas where power plants discharge water, to protect themselves from cold temperatures. "But I'm not going to celebrate some artificial victory", said Katie Tripp, who sits as science and conservation director at Save the Manatee Club.

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Florida has invested more than $2 million annually for conservation of manatees and the FWC says it will continue to work to ensure the well-being of the animals' population. An aerial study which ended at the beginning of this month presented a total number of 6,620 manatees.

But while that seems like a positive step for manatees, some conservationist groups have expressed concerns that it is too soon to downgrade their protections.

As the population of manatees grows, so do their fatal interactions with humans, primarily from boat collisions. "Therefore, for management agencies, there's more flexibility when dealing with a threatened species than there is for an endangered species".

The general upward trend in the population is one reason the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed taking manatees down a rung on its endangered species list.

"All comments and information received during the public comment [phase] are given consideration during the status review", Charles Underwood, spokesman for the service's North Florida Ecological Services Office, tells the Monitor via email. However manatee advocates fear the protections could be undermined once a downlisting takes place.

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