Red tide boosted manatee death toll


Published: Saturday, January 3, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 3, 2004 at 1:18 a.m.
MIAMI - A red-tide outbreak is blamed for boosting the number of manatees that died in Florida last year to the second highest total on record, state figures released Friday show.
A total of 98 manatees were suspected of dying because of red tide in 2003, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said in a report. The algae bloom concentrated off Southwest Florida's Gulf Coast pushed the total number of deaths last year to 380, second only to the 415 manatees that died in 1996, another year marred by red tide. There were 305 deaths in 2002.
Red tide is a foul-smelling, microscopic algae that emits a neurotoxin that can paralyze manatees or make their breathing difficult, said Dr. Elsa Haubold, administrator of the state's manatee program. The toxin also becomes airborne and causes breathing problems in humans.
Florida is the only state with a permanent natural manatee population, so the annual numbers are closely watched. The lumbering mammals are on the state and federal endangered species list, with the Florida population estimated at about 3,000.
The state does aerial surveys of the sea cow population each year, and the latest count was 3,113 in January 2003. The highest count on record was 3,276 in 2001, up from 1,465 from the first one in 1991.
But Haubold cautioned that counting manatees is difficult and those estimates could be far from the actual numbers.
One of the criteria to remove manatees from the federal endangered species list is for their population numbers to be stable or growing. Florida last November pushed back a decision for a year on whether to remove the animals from its list of endangered species.
Friday's figures also showed that the fewest manatees in five years were killed in collisions with watercraft. The 73 manatees' deaths caused by boats were down from a record 95 in 2002.
Florida has imposed speed limits on boaters and restrictions on building boat docks to protect manatees. The speed zones in about a third of Florida's 67 counties require boaters to either travel at idle speed, slow speed or travel no faster than 25 mph in channels.
Lee County had the most manatee deaths in the state last year with 81, mostly because of the red tide outbreak on the Gulf Coast. Lee also had the most deaths caused by watercraft with nine. Other causes of death include cold stress and birth problems.
Environmentalists say that better enforcement of boating rules is necessary.
But boaters contend that there are better ways to protect manatees, such as developing satellite tracking technology so boaters can avoid the animals. Boaters also say that more should be spent on studying ways to protect manatees from red tide.

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