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  1. Environment

Manatee deaths in 2018 nearly broke the all-time record because of Red Tide, cold and speeding boats

Marine Mammal Biologists move a deceased manatee, Sept. 4 at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Marine Mammal Pathology Lab, St. Petersburg. Biologists conducted necropsies on the animals which were found dead during the Labor Day weekend along Florida's southwest coast. Left to Right are: Volunteer Kathleen McClure, Marine Mammal Biologists Tara Whitcomb, Sean Tennant, and Brandon Bassett. (SCOTT KEELER | Times)
Published Dec. 28, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — So many manatees died in 2018 that it almost broke a five-year-old record.

As of Dec. 21, the number of manatee deaths had hit 804, thanks mostly to a combination of Red Tide toxins and cold stress. The record, set in 2013, is 818.

"We have not broken the 2013 record, but it will be very close," said Martine de Wit, who is in charge of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission laboratory in St. Petersburg that examines every dead manatee found in the state.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Red Tide kills record number of manatees in 2013.

But one thing did set a record: the number of manatees killed by boats. Speeding boaters killed 119 manatees this past year. The first year that the number topped 100 was 2016, with 104, and last year the number killed by boats was 108.

"The number is getting worse, not better," said Pat Rose of the Save the Manatee Club.

Jaci Lopez of the Center for Biological Diversity, who said the high number "breaks my heart," suggested that the way to cut back on the number of watercraft-related deaths is simple: "Seems like better enforcement ... might help the situation."

Rose noted that whenever gas prices fall and the economy does well, there are more boaters out on the water and they tend to go out more frequently. That tends to result in more manatees being injured or killed by being hit by boats.

Manatees were included on the very first endangered species list in 1967. But last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared they were no longer endangered and instead merely "threatened." To Rose, the number of manatee deaths in 2018 shows that move was premature. In fact, he said, it may have contributed to this year's boater deaths, by convincing some boaters that they did not need to take seriously any warnings about avoiding manatees in the water.

Red Tide has been blamed for killing 209 manatees so far. That is also short of the record set in 2013, when Red Tide was blamed for killing 277 manatees.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Clues to Red Tide sought in mounting number of manatee carcasses.

No one knows what causes Red Tide. Small, scattered colonies of microscopic algae live in the Gulf of Mexico all year long. Usually their numbers are so tiny that no one notices. But every now and then, usually in the late summer or fall, the algae population 10 to 40 miles offshore explodes into something called a bloom. The algae multiply rapidly and spread across the water's surface, staining it a rusty color that gives the phenomenon its name.

Once the Red Tide moves inland, it can be fueled and prolonged by pollution running off the land. The Red Tide bloom this year lasted 13 months, only fading out earlier this month.

The cold weather that hit Florida earlier this year took a steep toll on the marine mammals as well, de Wit said.

Fossils show manatees have existed in Florida for centuries. The first written account of someone seeing a manatee comes from the log of Christopher Columbus, who noted that mermaids were not as attractive as he had been led to believe.

Ever since Jacques Cousteau featured them in a 1972 television documentary called Forgotten Mermaids, the manatee has become a popular symbol of Florida's natural bounty, not to mention the centerpiece of several tourist attractions and a mascot for many schools.

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

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