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Record-breaking number of manatees counted during annual winter survey

In a finding sure to bolster the argument for removing them from the endangered species list, Florida scientists counted a record number of manatees this month during the annual winter aerial survey.

The numbers, released Thursday by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg, show they found 6,250 manatees swimming in the state's springs or near the warm-water outfall of power plants.

That's slightly more than last year's record of 6,063.

"Today's survey results make it even more clear that we all have cause to celebrate that conservation efforts have succeeded and the manatee is no longer endangered," said Christina Martin, an attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation. The foundation, representing a group from Crystal River, filed the lawsuit that has prodded federal officials to consider taking manatees down a step on the endangered list.

But Pat Rose of the Save the Manatee Club contended the results weren't that significant, given that they closely follow last year's count. To him, what's more important are the major die-offs that occurred in 2010 and 2013.

During this year's aerial manatee survey, 2,958 manatees turned up along the Gulf Coast from the Wakulla River down to the Everglades, while the biologists spotted 3,292 on the Atlantic Coast from Jacksonville to the Keys.

Holly Edwards, the biologist in charge of the 16 scientists who conducted the survey from Feb. 11-13, credited "absolutely beautiful" weather for the high count. The growing expertise of the scientists at spotting manatees bobbing up and down in the water helps, as well, according to the FWRI website.

The manatees counted two weeks ago are a far larger number than the 1,267 manatees counted by the first state-sponsored survey in 1991. To Edwards, that's a good sign.

"Anytime you're dealing with an endangered species, as long as you see the numbers going up, that's better than the alternative," she said.

Edwards said if the manatee population is indeed growing, it's because the sea grass they like to eat is recovering and spreading, springs continue gurgling and power plants continue dumping warm water.

However, she cautioned that manatees still face an uncertain future. A lot of Florida's springs have lost some of their flow due to overpumping of the aquifer. The power plants are all older and could be replaced or shut down.

And then, there's climate change.

A rising sea would block sunlight from reaching sea grass beds, killing them off, she said. It also would inundate the areas where the waterfront power plants now sit, she pointed out.

The scientists conducting the aerial surveys always warn the public not to treat the manatee numbers as if they were a census, comparing it to counting popcorn while it pops. They always say that it's a minimum number and that they likely missed some of them.

But the general upward trend is one reason the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed taking manatees down a rung on its endangered species list. The agency's other argument for changing the listing: a computer model that shows they now stand little chance of going extinct.

Manatees, which have been classified as endangered since the first federal list came out in 1967, no longer meet that term's legal definition, according to the federal agency. Instead, they should be reclassified as merely threatened, agency officials say.

About 100 people turned out Saturday for the agency's only public hearing on the issue, most of them to oppose it. The critics frequently noted the computer model failed to take into account massive die-offs in recent years from Red Tide and cold stress — events that could easily be repeated.

Additionally, the model produced by the U.S. Geological Survey does not include loss of coastal habitat, which was one of the reasons why manatees were put on the endangered list in the first place, said Rose, with the Save the Manatee Club.

"It doesn't account for human population growth," he said. Florida last year became the nation's third most populous state, with 20 million residents. Tourism topped 100 million, too.

The same USGS modeling effort, in a 2003 study, said Florida's carrying capacity for manatees is about 5,000. "Whoops," Edwards said Thursday. "Guess we need to update that."

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

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