Manatee deaths from boat collisions in 2004 hit the lowest level in five years, according to state biologists at the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.
And it could be because of hurricanes.
When four successive hurricanes slammed into Florida over six weeks last year, most boaters were too busy battening down the hatches and boarding up their houses to go out on the water.
That could explain why 69 manatees were killed by boats last year, down from 73 in 2003 and well below 2002's record high of 95.
"It's a reasonable assumption that if there are fewer boats on the water statewide, that would result in fewer watercraft deaths," Tom Pitchford, who oversees the state's marine mammal pathology laboratory in St. Petersburg, said Wednesday.
The flip side of that, Pitchford said, is that with fewer boaters on the water, it's possible some manatees died and were not seen by anyone.
Still, there were no signs that hurricanes killed manatees. Research suggests manatees hunker down in the water during a hurricane and are unaffected, said state biologist Ken Arrison.
Last year, manatee deaths dipped to 276, down more than 100 from the 2003 total.
Whenever a manatee carcass is found in Florida, biologists at the state laboratory dissect it to determine what killed it. Manatees are killed by the cold, infectious diseases and by being crushed by the locks of dams and canals. Some do not survive birth.
The 2003 total was high because Red Tide killed 98 manatees, the second largest number killed by the microscopic algae since the state began keeping records 30 years ago.
Last year four manatee deaths were attributed to Red Tide, Arrison said.
A Red Tide occurs when a microscopic algae that's always present in the Gulf of Mexico blooms in a higher than usual concentration, giving the water a reddish hue. When blooming, the organisms produce a toxin that can cause paralysis and death in fish, manatees and other marine creatures.
In 1996, Red Tide exposure killed a record 149 manatees.
Over the past three decades the leading cause of manatee deaths has usually been boat collisions. Since manatees have been on the endangered species list since its inception, environmental groups sued to force state and federal officials to do more to protect the slow-moving mammals from being injured or killed by boats.
In the past three years state and federal officials have attempted to cut the number of boating deaths with increased regulation and enforcement, which have proven controversial.
Last year, for instance, state wildlife officials imposed new boat-speed regulations on Tampa Bay for the first time.
Whatever the reason, Pitchford said, the drop in manatee deaths "is good news."
This year's number is the lowest since 1998, when 66 were killed by boats.
The number jumped to 82 in 1999 and did not drop until after it peaked in 2002.
As usual, the top two counties for boat-related deaths were Lee, with 13, and Brevard, with 11. Pinellas had 4, while Hillsborough accounted for only one _ a drop from 2003, when Hillsborough had five and Pinellas had four.
Citrus County, which holds its annual Manatee Festival this weekend, lost seven manatees last year, but only one of the deaths was blamed on a speeding boater.
Biologists estimate Florida's total manatee population at about 3,000. A firm number is problematic because manatees are hard to locate. Every winter, when cold weather prompts manatees to huddle together in warm-water outfalls at power plants and springs, state officials try to count them by air.
Plans are in place to do such a count this year, Pitchford said. State officials are waiting for the weather to cooperate.
In 2001, when weather conditions were perfect, biologists counted a record 3,276 manatees statewide.
BOATING MANATEE DEATHS
Source: Fish and Wildlife Research Institute