In 2005, manatee deaths rise 30%


Published: Friday, January 6, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 5, 2006 at 10:33 p.m.
ORANGE CITY - Sweet Gum was fatally injured by a racing boater. Her calf, Rachel, was also killed by a boat near Lake Monroe, and so was her granddaughter, Ruby.
This year has been a hard one for the state's endangered manatee population. Despite educational programs and campaigns targeting boaters, the number of confirmed manatee deaths in Florida jumped 30 percent during the first 11 months of 2005, according to state officials.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission estimated 366 manatees died through Dec. 9, 2005, compared to 276 deaths in 2004. The agency was expected to release final figures for 2005 next week.
Some experts attribute the spike to the toxic effects of red tide, an aquatic phenomenon caused by an unpredictable algae bloom that can sicken and kill sea life when it is ingested. This year was an unusually active year for red tide in the Gulf. It was most the active year since 1996, when a red tide bloom brought the statewide death toll to more than 400.
"We had a very severe year for red tide," said Cynthia Heil, a senior research scientist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission who monitors red tide statewide. "When red tides occurs in March, the manatees are especially threatened. This year the bloom started as early as January."
But animal activists at Save the Manatee Club are more concerned about another cause.
"The largest known cause of manatee deaths is from collisions with boats," said Judith Vallee, executive director of Save the Manatee, a nonprofit advocacy group. "We have no control over red tide or cold deaths so we try to focus on the deaths we can prevent."
Educating boaters about obeying speed limits and looking out for swirls in the water where manatees might be swimming are key, Vallee said. The organization encourages property owners to post big, yellow "Please Slow, Manatees Below," signs which urge boaters to obey the speed limits.
"Boats aren't just killing manatees, they're actually maiming them," said Vallee, who sees dozens of manatees each week who have been severely injured by watercraft propellers. "And somehow that message is being lost on the public."
Animal activists fear the current manatee population of 3,200 in Florida will continue to decrease. Increased development along Florida's waterways coupled with pollution and a lack of protective measures for the endangered species are to blame, Valee said.
In June, the state is also considering downgrading manatee's endangered status based on a new criteria.
"The criteria is extremely flawed. Manatees still very much need protection," Vallee said. "They're not ready to come off that list and as the threats are increasing, manatees are in even more danger.
At Blue Springs Park, Wayne Hartley refers to each manatee like a pet: Phyllis' new calf, Lenny's shrimpy size, Deep Dent's maimed tail. As the Park Service Specialist at Blue Springs State Park in Orange City, Hartley has gotten to know each one by name. The park's constant temperature of 73 degrees makes it the most popular stop in Florida for manatees during winter months.
The manatees are recognized by their scar patterns from boat accidents, said Hartley, who is responsible for a daily head count. Today there are about 36, and on Wednesday there were more than 100.
The park shows visitors a 16-minute educational clip on manatees and boater safety.
"It's the one thing we can actually do something about," Hartley said. "Obey the laws. If you're going to run fast, stay in the middle of the channel because the manatees spend more time on the edges where the grass is."
On a recent afternoon at Blue Springs, a group of about seven sea cows huddled together near a sunny patch of shallow water. The manatees are the main attraction at the state park, Hartley said. Visitors love to watch the sometime playful, but usually lazy sea creatures.
"They're gentle and curious because they want to know about you," said park visitor Rick Privette, who often watches manatees during scuba diving trips around Florida.
"They're a blast. They're fun to watch and they're not scared of you.'

Sea cow deaths at a glance

  • The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission estimated 366 manatees died through Dec. 9, 2005 compared to 276 deaths in 2004.
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