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Storms aided manatees, but they still need us

At last, a silver lining to last summer's string of hurricanes has been revealed. Scientists believe the six weeks or so of strong winds and dangerous waves helped drop the number of manatee deaths to a five-year low by keeping powerboats in their docks.

With boat collisions historically one, if not the leading, cause of manatee deaths, fewer boats cruising through Florida's coastal waters during some of the peak recreational boating months meant fewer propellers slicing through the hides of the endangered species.

It is interesting to note that even with the storms sharply curtailing boat traffic, the number of manatee deaths fell only a paltry amount. The Fish and Wildlife Research Institute reported this week that 69 manatees died in 2004 from boat collisions, down from 73 in 2003.

Overall, there were 276 manatee deaths last year, a drop of more than 100 from 2003, according to the institute. In Citrus County, home to one of the state's largest manatee herds, seven manatee deaths were reported last year, one as a result of a boat collision.

The statewide numbers are somewhat sketchy this year because the same storms that kept boaters in port also meant fewer sets of eyes on the waterways to report dead manatees or boating accidents.

Another factor in the sharp drop in manatee deaths in 2004 is the absence of any major Red Tide outbreaks. In 2003, records show, the algae blooms that make up Red Tide killed 98 manatees. That number fell to only four last year.

As we humans were rudely reminded last summer, there is not much we can do about the weather. We can no more control the creation of Red Tide than we can defuse or send away hurricanes and tropical storms. Therefore, any efforts we make to safeguard sea cows must focus solely on actions over which we do have a measure of control.

Steps by the federal and state governments to limit boat speeds and dock building in certain areas and to create manatee sanctuaries, while controversial, have proved effective. So much so, in fact, that they have led to the ironic argument by some in the boating industry that the regulations should be relaxed now that the species is finally recovering.

This weekend, Citrus County will celebrate the sea cow during its annual Manatee Festival. Among all of the arts, crafts and food booths visitors will find information about these gentle giants. Take the time to learn more about the manatee and what we humans can do to help this species stave off extinction.

After all, manatees can't count on a handful of hurricanes to blow in each summer to save their hides.

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