Scientists: 6,620 manatees in Florida waters
How many sea cows are in the ocean?
No one knows, but researchers say at least 6,620 manatees were plying Florida waters during an aerial survey completed earlier this month by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
That's the highest number of manatees ever counted, and this is the third consecutive year that numbers were above 6,000, according to FWC records.
“Successful conservation of manatees is a product of the commitment made by many different organizations over multiple decades," said Gil McRae, a lead FWC biologist, wrote in a statement. "The relatively high counts we have seen for the past three years underscore the importance of warm water habitat to manatees in Florida."
The state started counting manatees in 1991, when there was an estimated 1,267 swimming in Florida waters. Numbers have grown several-fold since then.
Manatees are listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which proposed last year to lower the animal's status to threatened after years of legal battles with boating and property rights interests.
"It’s really been a decade that the FWS has known, and it’s pretty typical, unfortunately," said Christina Martin, with the Pacific Legal Foundation's Palm Beach Gardens office. "We’re happy that the manatee is doing well, and we just want the government to follow the requirements."
The foundation is a property rights law group that filed a challenge with the FWS, saying the manatee no longer met federal criteria for being listed as endangered.
"Our challenge has really just been that they should follow the law and follow the science," Martin said. "Back in 2007, the FWS came out with a five-year status review and they said the manatee should be classified as only threatened. And they still haven’t acted on that."
Katie Tripp, director of science and conservation for Save the Manatee Club, said the focus should be on protecting future habitat and natural springs — where manatees often winter.
"I don’t know that anybody is really surprised, that we have more manatees than we used to," Tripp said. "I look at the 6,620 and think about the future, that’s a lot of manatees to move around."
There are several plants throughout the state that discharge warm water, like the Florida Power & Light plant along the Orange River just east of Fort Myers.
These areas may offer manatees a safe place to stay warm in the winter, but what will the manatees do in the future, when the plants are converted into other technologies or uses?
"I’m ready for the next chapter, where are we going to put these animals and how are we going to protect their habitat," Tripp said. "The (Endangered Species Act) isn’t about population numbers. It’s about security of the habitat and threats to the future population."
Counting manatees isn't easy, although it is mandated by Florida law.
The process involves airplanes circling overhead, with researchers counting each individual they can see. The counts are done in cold winter spells, when the species is most likely to gather in large herds near warm-water refuges.
Lee County leads state in manatee deaths from boats
FWC requires that air temperatures be forecast to be 49 degrees or colder at manatee aggregation sites for three of five days. The water temperature must also be below 68 degrees, and winds on count days can not be higher than 15 knots.
Manatees have a strong presence and history in Lee County, which led the state in boat-related conditions last year with 19 documented watercraft-related deaths.
Feds say manatee no longer endangered
This year's count took place between Jan. 20 and Feb. 2.
"(We) 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," McRae said.
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By the numbers
Manatee counts over the years
2013: No count
2012: No count
2008: No count
Source: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission