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Florida manatee deaths could reach record high

FILE- This Dec. 28, 2010 photos shows a group of manatees in a canal where discharge from a nearby Florida Power & Light plant warms the water in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Florida wildlife officials say 538 manatees were found dead in the state’s waterways in 2017. That’s the third-highest annual death toll on record for the large marine mammals. [Associated Press]
Published Jul. 15

Speeding boaters have killed so many manatees this year that Florida is likely to soon break the record for boat-related manatee deaths — a record that was set just last year.

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

"This is really an unprecedented number," Martine de Wit said Monday. She oversees the state's Marine Mammal Pathology Laboratory in St. Petersburg, where every dead manatee is examined by experts searching for a cause of death.

Look for the record to be broken before summer ends.

"We're at the height of the boating season" right now, Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club and an avid boater, said Monday. 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 by boats set a new record of 122.

De Wit said there are no unusual trends among the deaths, just the plain fact of there being a lot more of them than ever before. Lee and Brevard county boaters killed the most manatees of any counties, and the majority of the fatal injuries were blunt-force trauma caused when the skeg of a boat slamming into the state's official marine mammal.

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.

A spokeswoman for the state wildlife commission responded to a question about increased boating rules enforcement by noting that the Legislature had authorized the agency to hire 13 new law officers.

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.

The increase in boat ownership is another, he said, as is the relative cheap cost of gasoline and the generally fair weather so far this year.

He said the state's laissez-faire approach to development over the past eight years — since the abolition of the Department of Community Affairs — also plays a part.

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.

State biologists began tracking the number of manatee deaths in the 1970s. Last year, because of the boat deaths, Red Tide and a prolonged cold snap, a total of 824 manatees died — the second-most since record-keeping began. Rose said that such a huge loss shows that the one thing that's not a cause of the increased boat deaths is "more manatees."

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

REPORT AN INJURED MANATEE:

If you see a sick or injured manatee, please notify the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission by calling 1-888-404-3922 (FWCC).

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