Florida manatee deaths reach record high

The cold water and manatees

Sea cows seek warm water on chilly ...

— Florida’s endangered manatees have chalked up their deadliest year on record in 2010 thanks to last winter’s big chill, figures released Friday show.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported 699 manatee deaths through Dec. 5, a 63 percent increase over 2009, the previous record year for manatee deaths with 429 recorded.

Of this year’s deaths, 244 of them were blamed on cold stress. That compares to just 54 cold-related deaths in 2009, figures show.

Many of the 183 unexplained manatee deaths so far this year also likely were cold related, the Conservation Commission said.

Monitors have not attributed any manatee deaths to this past week’s cold snap, at least not yet.

The Conservation Commission is bracing for a possible repeat of last winter’s death streak, which had rescuers juggling space in Florida’s manatee rehabilitation clinics, said Gil McRae, director of the FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg.

“Hopefully it doesn’t evolve this year,” McRae said.

He said it could be years before scientists can tell the long-term effect of the 2010 death toll on the health of Florida’s manatee population.

In January 2010, manatee trackers counted more than 5,000 manatees in Florida’s waters, besting 2009’s record count by some 1,200 sea cows.

The record number of cold-related deaths underscores the need to maximize access to warm-water refuges for manatees, including natural springs and power plant discharges, McRae said.

A Collier County boating industry leader said it would be unfortunate if the record death toll became a rallying point for slower boat speed zones.

“It’s no fault of boaters,” Marine Industries Association of Collier County President Frank Perrucci said. “It’s no fault of anybody.”

A manatee advocate, though, said the high death count in 2010 makes the success of other manatee protection measures that much more important.

“I’m really fearful this is not over yet,” Save the Manatee Club Director Pat Rose said.

Connect with Eric Staats at www.naplesnews.com/staff/eric_staats

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