For the third year in a row, the annual attempt to count the manatees swimming in Florida's waterways has broken the previous year's record. Scientists reported finding 6,620 manatees this year, up from the 6,250 last year and 6,063 the year before.
During cold weather at the end of January and the beginning of February, a team of 15 observers from 10 organizations flew around looking for manatees huddled together at power plants and in springs.
They counted 3,488 manatees on Florida's east coast from Jacksonville to the Keys, and 3,132 on the west coast from the Wakulla River down to the Everglades. The survey was coordinated by the state's marine science laboratory, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg.
"The relatively high counts we have seen for the past three years underscore the importance of warm water habitat to manatees in Florida," institute director Gil McRae said in a news release sent out Monday.
The latest numbers should convince the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to proceed with taking manatees off the endangered list and instead classifying them as merely threatened, said Christina Martin of the libertarian Pacific Legal Foundation, which sued the agency to force a decision.
"This is more evidence that the Fish and Wildlife Service needs to act on" downgrading the manatees' status, Martin said.
But Pat Rose of the Save the Manatee Club pointed to several years of what he called "pretty tough times" in which scores of manatees were wiped out by Red Tide or other algae blooms or by severe cold weather. Last year 520 died, of which 104 were killed by boaters.
The scientists conducting the aerial surveys always warn the public not to treat the manatee numbers as if they were a census. They always say that it's a minimum number and that they likely missed some of them.
Attempting to spot manatees for the count can be difficult, since they only surface every five minutes or so to breathe. One veteran biologist compared the effort to trying to count popcorn while it pops.
Nevertheless, the numbers now are far higher than the 1,267 manatees counted by the first state-sponsored survey in 1991.
The general upward trend in the population is one reason the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed taking manatees down a rung on its endangered species list. The agency's other argument for changing the listing: a computer model that shows they now stand little chance of going extinct.
Manatees have been classified as endangered since the first federal list came out in 1967. They were put on the list because of the threats they faced from being run over by boats, the loss of habitat to waterfront development and a decline in water quality.
While those threats remain a problem, manatees no longer meet the legal definition of endangered, according to the federal agency, and thus should be reclassified as merely threatened.
However, in a public hearing last year and in public comments on the proposal, manatee fans overwhelmingly opposed the change in the listing status. They noted the computer model failed to take into account either manatees' loss of habitat or the massive die-offs in recent years.
Last month Martin's organization filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the federal agency if it fails to make a decision on the change in listing status by mid-March. However, Martin said the Fish and Wildlife Service might be hamstrung by the Trump Administration's freeze on new federal regulations.
Contact Craig Pittman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @craigtimes.