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Florida boaters kill record 98 manatees this year, but 2016 isn't over yet

Manatees swim in Crystal River’s Kings Bay. A federal agency may move the species from endangered to “threatened.”

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2015)

Manatees swim in Crystal River’s Kings Bay. A federal agency may move the species from endangered to “threatened.”

In 2009, boaters killed a record 97 manatees in Florida.

That grim record was recently broken in 2016, and the year isn't over yet.

The 98th manatee to die this year, the one that broke the record, was an adult female that was found dead on Dec. 2 in Fort Lauderdale's Stranahan River.

Most manatees that are killed by boats are clobbered by the skeg, which shatters their bones and can drive the shards into their heart and lungs. But this manatee, which was more than 10 feet long, was killed by "acute trauma by a propeller," according to Martine de Wit, the veterinarian who oversees the state's Marine Mammal Pathology Laboratory in St. Petersburg.

"So this was the less common type of trauma," she said.

The record-breaking find comes as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering taking manatees off its endangered list and reclassifying them as merely "threatened."

The number killed by boats this year is far beyond the limit of 12 a year that a federal study said would mark the most deaths caused by humans that Florida manatees could tolerate without risking extinction.

"Watercraft collisions are the major threat to the manatee, long-term," de Wit said.

This year's total for boat-related deaths is already 11 more than last year's toll, and far beyond the 2014 total of 69.

The total number of manatee deaths from various causes in 2016 is 472, which is higher than last year's 405. However it's well short of the record of 830, set in 2013 amid a deadly cold snap and a wave of poisonings by Red Tide, as well as a mysterious ailment in manatees found in the Indian River Lagoon that's still under investigation.

A few spots around the state's coastline have so far posted the highest numbers of manatees killed from being run over by boaters. Lee County leads the state with 18 casualties, Volusia has 12 and Monroe 10.

In the Tampa Bay area, seven manatees were killed by boats in Hillsborough County waters, while Pinellas saw two deaths.

There is some good news, however. "We also rescued a high number of manatees that had been hit by boats," de Wit said. State biologists have managed to net 30 injured manatees so far, she said. But she added: "I'm not saying they all survived."

What caused the big jump in boat deaths? One factor, de Wit said, is that there appear to be more manatees now than there used to be. Aerial surveys earlier this year counted a record 6,250 swimming in the state's waterways.

She and Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, also cited the economy as a factor. Lower gas prices combined with an improving economy means more boats out on the water. Meanwhile continued waterfront development whittles away at the places where manatees live and puts more boats in those areas.

Because of those factors, Rose said, "I predicted a year ago we would break (the record). I feel no satisfaction in seeing it happen, though."

Manatees have been a popular Florida icon since the 1960s, featured on everything from license plates to minor league baseball uniforms. They're even the centerpiece of an annual Manatee Festival, which is expected to draw thousands of tourists to Crystal River this weekend.

Settlers and Seminoles considered manatees an excellent food source, but they have been classified as endangered since the first federal endangered species list came out in 1967.

They earned their place on the list not because of their numbers — which at the time were a mystery — but because of the threats to their future from waterfront development and boat collisions.

While those threats still exist, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed changing manatees' status based on a computer model that tries to predict the future of the species.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

Two decades of manatee decline

YearBoat deathsTotal deaths
199660415
199754242
199866232
199982268
200078273
200181325
200295305
200373380
200469276
200580396
200692417
200773317
200890337
200997429
201083766
201188453
201281392
201373830
201469371
201587405
201698472

Source: Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute

Florida boaters kill record 98 manatees this year, but 2016 isn't over yet 12/12/16 [Last modified: Monday, December 12, 2016 8:58pm]
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