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  1. Environment

Wildlife Commission steps up water patrols as manatee deaths approach record

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is stepping up water patrols following reports that the number of manatees killed by collisions with boats is set to break the annual record.

"We strategically assign officers to patrol certain areas based on boating activity and manatee data," Col. Curtis Brown, director of the Wildlife Commission's Division of Law Enforcement said in a news release. "We also work closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and local partners to make sure that boaters know to look out for manatees. We want people and manatees to be safe."

Brown said his officers will be targeting the waterways of the three counties with the highest number of boat-related manatee deaths: Lee, Brevard and Volusia.

As of July 9, boaters had fatally struck 89 manatees, according to records kept by the Florida Wildlife Commission. That's just 33 short of the record for a full year, with five months to go. In this same time period last year, the number hit by boats was just 65.

Martine de Wit, the veterinarian who oversees the state's Marine Mammal Pathology Laboratory in St. Petersburg, called it "an unprecedented number." And Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, predicted that passing the record "could happen really fast. Another month or two and we could be there."

The rapidly rising total of boat strikes is part of a year-by-year escalation of boat-related deaths for manatees. The first year that the number topped 100 was 2016, with 106. Then, in 2017 the number killed by boats rose to 111. Last year, the number of manatees hit and killed by boats set a new record of 122.

Just as the number of boat-related manatee deaths has risen, so has the number of recreational boats registered in Florida. It's been increasing every year since 2013. Last year there were 919,000 registered in the state. Adding in the number of commercial vessels boosts that number past the one million mark.

Manatees were included on the very first endangered species list in 1967. But in 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared they were no longer endangered and instead merely "threatened."

Federal officials promised then that changing the manatees' classification would not weaken their protections. But Rose contends that the change is a big factor in the rising number of manatees being killed, because "people think there is less need to be vigilant" when boating through areas known to hold manatees.

When the Times asked the Wildlife Commission Monday about stepping up enforcement in connection with the increase in the number of manatees hit by boats, the agency responded that it had been authorized by the Legislature to hire 13 new officers.

Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.