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Boaters broke the record for killing manatees in 2019

Number of boat-related deaths has escalated each year since 2016
SCOTT KEELER | Times Biologists begin to examine a dead manatee at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Marine Mammal Pathology Lab, St. Petersburg in this 2018 photo. Left to Right are: Volunteer Kathleen McClure, Marine Mammal Biologists Tara Whitcomb, Sean Tennant, and Brandon Bassett. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]

ST. PETERSBURG — In 2019, Florida’s boaters set a new record for killing manatees in the state’s waterways. State manatee experts weren’t surprised.

“It’s a trend we have seen every year for the past few years,” said Martine de Wit, the veterinarian who oversees the state’s Marine Mammal Pathology Laboratory in St. Petersburg. The lab examines each dead manatee to determine a cause of death, and also spearheads the state’s rescue of injured and ailing manatees.

As of Dec. 20, boaters had killed 130 manatees this year, topping the 2018 record of 122, which topped the 2017 record of 108, which topped the 2016 record of 104, figures from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission show. The 2019 numbers yet go even higher before the new year dawns.

So many manatees died in 2018 it almost broke the record.

Manatees were included on the first federal endangered species list created in 1967, but U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials removed them in early 2017 and classified them as merely threatened.

“While it is not out of the woods, we believe the manatee is no longer on the brink of extinction,” Larry Williams, head of the federal agency’s Vero Beach office, said in announcing the change two years ago.

Manatees no longer classified as endangered

Pat Rose of the Save the Manatee Club contends the change in status has led to less concern among boaters about avoiding manatees as well as a decrease in enforcement of the state’s rules for how fast boats can go.

“People are a little less vigilant,” he said.

However, de Wit said her lab staff coordinates with the state wildlife commission’s law enforcement arm to target areas with the highest number of manatees hit by boats. A spokeswoman for the state agency was unable to provide specifics for how that has worked out this year.

Another factor in the rising number of boat-related deaths, he said, is the rising number of boats registered in Florida. In 2015, Florida had 915,000 registered boats, a number that in 2016 rose to 931,000. In 2017 that number increased to 944,000 and last year it topped 950,000. That’s more than any other state.

Rose also suggested development in manatee habitat, including new docks, has pushed manatees outside their normal feeding areas. That too can lead to them being hit by boats.

The total number of manatee deaths from all causes in 2019 was 574. That is well below the record set in 2013, when a combination of Red Tide and cold weather killed 830 of them. Last year nearly equaled that record as 824 died, many of them due to toxins carried by the worst Red Tide outbreak in a decade.

Red Tide killed some manatees this year but not nearly as many, de Wit said. Although toxicology tests are still being run on some of the carcasses, she said the number appears to be 17. That’s well below the more than 200 killed by the algae last year.

The one other piece of good news, Rose said, is that de Wit and her staff routinely rescue about 100 manatees every year and take them to one of the state’s rehabilitation facilities. If not for their work, the number of dead manatees would be much higher.

An estimated two-thirds of all manatees have been hit by boats at some point in their lives. Scientists use the pattern of healed scars on their skin as a way to identify them.

“Most manatees have been within an inch of losing their lives before because of boats,” Rose said.

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MANATEE DEATHS 2014-2019

2019: 130 by boats, 574 total (as of Dec. 20)

2018: 122 by boats, 804 total

2017: 108 by boats, 524 total

2016: 104 by boats, 501 total

2015: 84 by boats, 396 total

2014 69 by boats, 362 total

Source: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

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