Manatee figures touch off debate

Published: Thursday, January 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 31, 2003 at 11:41 p.m.
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Department of Environmental Protection biologists and aides examine a manatee pulled from the warm discharge water at the Tampa Electric Plant in Apollo Beach in this 1996 file photo. The manatees were examined for skin damage from boats, blood samples were taken, and some manatees had a small transmitter inserted under their skin for tracking purposes.

The Associated Press
MIAMI - The latest figures on Florida's manatee population showed mixed results on efforts to boost the lumbering mammal's numbers, leaving boaters and environmentalists still fighting over what should be done to protect the endangered species.
Manatee deaths in Florida reached the second-highest number on record last year, but the fewest manatees in five years were killed in collisions with watercraft, according to data through Dec. 19 from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Florida is the only state with a permanent natural manatee population, so the numbers are closely watched. A final accounting of manatee death statistics for 2003 will be released Friday.
Boaters said that because only 70 of last year's 361 deaths were caused by watercraft, boating speed zones and restrictions on building docks should be scaled back. In 2002, a record 95 of 305 total manatee deaths were caused by watercraft.
But environmentalists point to the uncertainty over whether Florida's manatee population is stable or growing. One of the criteria to remove manatees from the federal endangered species list is for their population numbers to be stable or growing.
An estimated 360 manatees were born this year, so the population is, at best, stable, state manatee biologist Bruce Ackerman said Wednesday.
Ackerman runs the aerial surveys the commission does of the manatee population each year, and the latest count was 3,113 in January 2003. But Ackerman acknowledges that the surveys are not an exact science, and the population could vary greatly.
That's why environmentalists say that long-term trends are more important than annual figures.
"This is just another bad year on top of 10 bad years," said Suzanne Tarr, staff biologist at the Save the Manatee Club.
Environmentalists say that better enforcement of manatee protection rules are necessary. The rules in 24 of Florida's 67 counties require boaters to either travel at idle speed, slow speed or travel no faster than 25 mph in channels.
But boaters contend that there are better ways to protect manatees, such as developing satellite tracking technology so boaters can avoid the animals. They also say that more should be spent on studying ways to protect manatees from red-tide outbreaks, which boosted the number of manatee deaths last year and in 1996, when a record 415 died.
"It comes across in the press that boaters just want to kill manatees. That's not the case," said Chris Kewley, president of the Marine Industry Association of Central Florida.
"Boaters are usually outdoors people who care more for the environment."

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