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    Pinellas County manatee deaths rise to 9 in 2001

    It's the highest number since counts began in 1974. But no pattern emerges.

    By RICHARD DANIELSON, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 20, 2002

    As soon as she saw the manatee in Tarpon Springs' Kreamer Bayou, Cyndi Sweeney sensed something was wrong.

    The manatee was being pushed around by several other adults and nuzzled by two infants.

    "Her little babies were snuggling up to her," Sweeney said. "There was quite a few members of the pod around her. . . . It was so sad."

    By the time Sweeney and several others waded into waist-deep water to help, the manatee was dead. It was one of nine manatees to die in Pinellas County waters during 2001, according to the Florida Marine Research Institute. That's the most recorded in the county since 1974, when the state began counting.

    Since the mid 1990s, Pinellas manatee deaths have ranged from four to seven a year.

    Unlike other counties, no pattern emerges from last year's manatee deaths in Pinellas. In Citrus County, for example, six of the county's nine manatee deaths involved newborns. In Lee County, collisions with boats killed 23 of the 51 manatees that died last year.

    Of the nine manatees that died in Pinellas, four died of natural causes. In two of those cases, state biologists suspect Red Tide played a role. Two more manatees died from cold stress or medical conditions exacerbated by cold weather. Manatees exposed to prolonged cold weather are usually emaciated and generally malnourished.

    A seventh manatee died shortly after it was born. An eighth, a female weighing 595 pounds, died at least several weeks after being hit by a boat. In mid January, several concerned St. Petersburg residents herded it out of a creek because they were concerned it was trapped. A week later, it was rescued after retired plasterer Quincy Hill spotted it in a drainage canal near the Twin Brooks Golf Course. Marine researchers later determined that it had swum inland and reached warm water flowing from beneath city streets.

    It died three weeks later. Pathologists concluded that an 18-inch wound, probably inflicted by a boat's keel or rudder, left the manatee vulnerable to a fatal infection.

    The ninth, the 979-pound female Sweeney saw last September, died for reasons state pathologists never determined. Though its cause of death is unknown, officials did learn something about its life: it had healed scars from being hit by boats at least six times, according to a necropsy report.

    State officials and others who monitor the mammals hesitate to draw any conclusions from last year's data.

    "It's difficult to pinpoint what's going on in one year," said Patti Thompson, a biologist for the Save the Manatee Club, a private, nonprofit organization based in Maitland. "I think the one trend we have been seeing is an increased number of manatees using Tampa Bay over the winter.

    There probably are more manatees in Tampa Bay than in the past, said Bruce Ackerman, a manatee biologist with the Florida Marine Research Institute. It's not that the manatee population has suddenly gotten bigger, he said, but that there are more manatees visiting the bay to bask in warm water discharged by local power plants

    Manatees are hard to count, Ackerman said. They move around and swim in murky water, sometimes diving in one spot and surfacing in another. In January 2001, an aerial survey of the bay found about 350 manatees. The highest count before that was 280.

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