Manatee deaths, debate rise
By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- Despite a host of new measures designed to protect them, more manatees died in Florida's waterways last year than any year since 1996, according to figures released Friday by the Florida Marine Research Institute.
Eric Glitzenstein, an attorney for a coalition of environmental groups suing state and federal agencies over manatee protection, said the numbers show that government officials have failed to do what they promised to protect the endangered marine mammal.
"This just highlights the consequences of ongoing foot-dragging," Glitzenstein said.
State and federal officials defended their agencies against the accusation.
"We're doing what we can," said Pete Benjamin of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
And Kipp Froehlich of the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said 2001 was "a very active year in manatee protection" for his agency. Yet the total death toll for Florida manatees jumped by more than 50, rising from 273 in 2000 to 325 in 2001.
The only year with a higher toll was 1996, when the total of 415 deaths resulted from a massive Red Tide bloom that killed nearly 150. Red Tide accounted for only a handful of the manatee deaths last year, according to Tom Pitchford, a biologist with the Florida Marine Research Institute.
However, more than 30 were killed by the severe cold of last winter, the most killed by cold stress in the past decade, Pitchford pointed out. Another 108, listed as dead from "undetermined" causes, probably included other cold-stress victims, he said.
Boating advocates contended that the high number of deaths merely reflects a higher than ever population of manatees. In early 2001, researchers counted 3,276 manatees, the most ever.
That, plus the cold stress, accounts for the high death toll, said Ted Forsgren of the Coastal Conservation Association of Florida, which has petitioned to have the manatee removed from the state's list of endangered species.
But manatee activists point out there are also more boats than ever plying the state's rivers, canals and waterways.
Speeding boaters killed 81 manatees last year, just one less than the record of 82 set in 1999. Last year the number of watercraft-related deaths was 78, which Pitchford said meant the level had stayed nearly even for three years in a row.
The high death toll comes after state and federal agencies agreed to step up their efforts to safeguard the manatee, which has been on the endangered species list for three decades.
The state and federal agencies said they assigned more officers to patrol the state's waterways and crack down on speeders. They also promised to set up a system of sanctuaries and refuges that would limit boater access, restrict boating speeds where manatees congregate and more closely review permits for marinas and boat docks to be built in manatee habitat.
Lee County racked up a reputation as the deadliest county in the state, with 23 manatees killed by boats in 2001. That's more than any county's death toll since the lab began keeping records -- even though the state imposed speed zones in 1999 that were designed to force boaters to slow down.
"I'll be honest, everybody's scratching their heads together over that one," Froehlich said. He said state officials will try to figure out what more they can do in Lee to provide greater protection.
In the Tampa Bay area, boaters killed four manatees in Hillsborough County and one each in Pinellas, Pasco and Citrus counties.
Federal wildlife officials, in their plan for getting the manatee off the endangered species list, indicated that the number of manatee deaths in 2001 would not be considered too high. They said 10 percent of the population, or between 200 and 300 of them, could die every year and it will not endanger the species' future.
But the most recent computer modeling studies by manatee scientists have found "that would almost certainly result in a declining population," Lynn Lefebvre of the U.S. Geological Survey, who was chairman of a federal science panel on manatee population, said in October.
Manatees reproduce very slowly, she said, so a 10 percent annual death rate is too high. "You can't afford to lose that many adults," she said.
- Staff writer Barbara Behrendt contributed to this report.
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