Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)


Last year was deadliest ever for Florida manatees

ST. PETERSBURG — Last year was the worst ever for Florida manatees, with records broken both for the total number of deaths statewide and the number killed by boats.

The state's marine science laboratory announced Wednesday that 429 manatees died — 97 killed by boats. One area where boat-related deaths spiked: the Tampa Bay region.

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

"If we don't get this under control, it's going to have a definite impact on the future of the species," warned Pat Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club.

Rose is now urging state officials to install a waterway version of red-light cameras in areas with no-entry, idle and slow zones to persuade boaters to respect the rules that protect manatees.

"This would ultimately be cheaper and safer for both the enforcement agencies and boaters while safer for both boaters and manatees," he said. State officials say they are considering it, but are concerned about the logistics of setting up such a camera system.

The previous record for manatee deaths was set in 2006, when 417 died, 92 of them hit by boats. The previous record for boat deaths was set in 2002, when boats mowed down 95 manatees.

The two big reasons for the increase in deaths this past year were watercraft and cold stress, said Martine Dewit, an associate research scientist with the state's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg. Manatees cannot stand cold weather, and that's why they seek refuge in the winter in springs or at power plant outfalls where the water is warmer.

The other big increase was in the number of deaths of young manatees, she said. In the past the deaths of the young have averaged below 100, but last year they surged to 114. Biologists could find no single leading cause for the increase, she said.

Dewit said no one knows the reason for the increase in watercraft deaths, although one possibility is the economy. Because of fuel costs, the state's 1 million boaters may have stayed closer to shore rather than heading for open water, and thus wound up zooming through the places where manatees swim, she said.

Rose agreed, adding that the state's budget crunch has limited how much state wildlife officers were able to enforce boating speed zones, which could lead to further manatee deaths.

Marine Industry of Florida spokesman John Sprague said that was true, noting, "If you repeatedly go out in a boat and you never see a law enforcement officer, you wonder how many violators there are. … It's a problem."

However, he contended that the biggest factor in the rise in manatee deaths is an apparent increase in the number of manatees. The most recent estimate from federal officials is a population of 3,800, which is 600 more than aerial surveys found in 2001.

However, scientists have found the death rate increasing at a faster pace than the population.

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. Forty-three years later, experts say those threats remain just as potent.

Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service is supposed to draw up stock assessments for endangered marine species every year, but the last time the agency wrote an assessment of Florida manatees was 1995. The Center for Biological Diversity sued in 2007, winning a settlement in which the agency agreed to produce a new assessment.

According to that report, released at the end of December, there are an estimated 3,800 manatees in Florida's waterways. In three regions of the state, the population appears to be growing steadily.

But in the area the agency has dubbed the Southwest region, which runs from just north of Tampa Bay south to the Ten Thousand Islands, the population appears to be declining. That region contains nearly half of all manatees in Florida.

In its report, the agency calculated that 12 manatees could be lost each year to human activities — killed by boats, crushed by dam locks, entangled by fishing lines and traps — without endangering the species. But since the report was concerned only with commercial fishing, which had little effect on manatees, the agency found no reason to do anything more to crack down on speeding boaters or deny more permits for dock construction.

Craig Pittman can be reached at (727) 893-8530 or

A manatee surfaces at the Tampa Electric Company Manatee Viewing Center.


A manatee surfaces at the Tampa Electric Company Manatee Viewing Center.

Manatees' deadly year

Year Killed
by boats
1996 60 415
1997 54 242
1998 66 232
1999 82 268
2000 78 273
2001 81 325
2002 95 305
2003 73 380
2004 69 276
2005 80 396
2006 92 417
2007 73 317
2008 90 337
2009 97 429

Last year was deadliest ever for Florida manatees 01/06/10 [Last modified: Thursday, January 7, 2010 1:53pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. State shuts down Hollywood nursing home where 9 died in scorching heat

    State Roundup

    HOLLYWOOD — The Hollywood Hills nursing home that became a sweltering deathtrap for nine seniors after Hurricane Irma was shut down Wednesday.

    Dawn Schonwetter stops to look at a memorial of flowers and messages left on the sidewalk of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017. Nine residents of the nursing home died in the wake of Irma, including one who was added to the death toll on Tuesday. [AL DIAZ | Miami Herald]
  2. Tampa woman identified in fatal I-4 crash that sent car into canal in Plant City


    The Florida Highway Patrol has identified a Tampa woman killed in a crash on Wednesday morning in Plant City.

  3. Police identify woman they say beat and stole from a 69-year-old in St. Petersburg


    ST. PETERSBURG — Tips from the public have led police to identify the woman they say followed and beat up a 69-year-old woman at her home as 34-year-old Leslie Broadfoot.

    Police have identified Leslie Broadfoot, 34, as the woman they say beat up a 69-year-old after saying she would help her unload hurricane supplies from her car. (St. Petersburg police)
  4. Gradebook podcast: The 'Is Hurricane Irma finally over?' edition


    Schools across Florida began preparing for Hurricane Irma long before it ever arrived, its veering path creating anxiety for just about every Floridian at one point or another. Cafeteria workers, teachers, custodians, bus drivers, administrators and others jumped into action, often putting civic duty ahead of personal …

    The Hillsborough County school district created a video celebrating its employees as heroes of Hurricane Irma.
  5. After sheltering thousands, Hernando schools are back in business


    BROOKSVILLE — As Hurricane Irma bore down on Hernando County, more than 5,000 people and 700 animals huddled together seeking shelter inside six local schools.

    Volunteers serve lunch on Sept. 10 at Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics, one of the Hernando schools that opened as a public shelter during Hurricane Irma.