Recently, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) announced that over several days in February a team of 20 observers from 11 organizations counted 6,630 manatees in Florida this winter. The east coast count was 3,333 and 2,730 on the west coast of the state during this year’s aerial survey. This count exceeded the previous high count for 2010 by almost 1,000 animals. Counters surveyed from aircraft and on foot.
Weather permitting, the aerial survey has been conducted annually since 1991 to provide researchers with a count of manatees visible in Florida waters at the time of the survey. Since researchers have no way to know the number of manatees that were not visible during these surveys, they consider these results a minimum count of the statewide population.
“Manatees used warm-water sites and other winter habitat areas to cope with a strong cold front that recently moved through the region,” said FWC biologist Holly Edwards. “In many of the regions surveyed, warm, sunny weather caused manatees to rest at the water’s surface, which facilitated our efforts to count them in these areas. Calm waters and high visibility also contributed to the high count.”
We were very fortunate to have near-optimal conditions for our survey this year,” said FWRI Director Gil McRae. “The high count this year is especially encouraging, given the large-scale mortality events that resulted in over 800 deaths in 2013.”
Manatees received protection from the US Endangered Species Act of 1973, and the US Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. They are also protected by the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978. They were not classified as endangered because of their numbers, but because of the threats they faced from boat strikes and losing their habitat to waterfront development.
However, conservationists say that the increase in manatee numbers doesn’t mean a healthy future is assured or that the sea mammals should be delisted from the Endangered Species List. They reference the hundreds of manatees that died as a result of cold stress syndrome in 2010, the 800 manatees that died during a red tide algal bloom and since 2012, and the more than 100 manatees that died in the polluted Indian River Lagoon for mysterious reasons. They say that changes in climate are likely to worsen some of the exiting challenges that manatees face like red tide and cold weather events. They also believe that climate change will bring sea level rise which will negatively impact the manatees’ ability to access sea grass, a staple of their diet.
“Counting this many manatees is wonderful news,” said FWC Chairman Richard Corbett. “The high count this year shows that our long-term conservation efforts are working.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expects to make a decision later this year as to whether the sea cow should be taken off the endangered species list.
Florida Manatees are found in freshwater rivers, in estuaries, and in the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. They may live to be more than 28 years in the wild.