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Manatee deaths a record

But the wildlife agency wants to lessen their protection.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT
Published January 10, 2007


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A record-high number of manatees died in Florida last year, fueled in part by a rise in watercraft-related fatalities.

The state saw 416 manatee deaths, one more than the previous high in 1996, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute reported. That included 86 watercraft-related fatalities, the second highest ever.

The report was released Tuesday - just two days before the comment period ends on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's proposal to downgrade manatees from an endangered to a threatened species.

The proposed downgrade has irked groups like the Save the Manatee Club because, among other things, the state's new manatee plan would allow a loss of 30 percent of the manatee population within the next three generations.

Record mortality numbers fit in with that kind of picture.

"They're managing for a declining population," Save the Manatee executive director Pat Rose said. "You're supposed to manage for an optimal population ... so we're obviously pretty frustrated."

But Florida Fish and Wildlife officials aren't sure whether the rise in deaths is cause for concern.

"Scientists are unsure as to whether the increase reflects manatee population growth, increased mortality or better detection of carcasses," the agency said in a news release.

"It's always sad to see such high numbers, especially in watercraft-caused mortality, but these numbers shed some light on the measures we can take in our commitment to reducing human-related threats to manatees and possibly other threats," wildlife commission Chairman Rodney Barreto said. "With continued human population growth and enjoyment of the outdoors, we must all be diligent in the conservation and protection of this gentle animal."

The manatee plan examines existing protections and proposes new ones. It also includes new measurements for the health and viability of the manatee population.

By Tuesday afternoon, the state had received 664 comments on the proposal.

The plan will be presented to the wildlife commission on June 13 in Melbourne. If the commission accepts the plan and reclassifies manatees as threatened, the designation will indicate that the species has a very high risk of extinction.

The 2006 mortality numbers didn't surprise John Sprague, government affairs chairman for Marine Industries of Florida. As the manatee population has grown, he said, so has the number that eventually perish.

The statewide count of manatees has grown from 1,268 in 1991 - the year of the first count - to a high of nearly 3,300 in 2001. About 3,100 were counted last year.

While some argue that means the population has risen, others attribute the numbers to improved manatee counting techniques.

Boat-related deaths have traditionally made up about a quarter of the overall number of manatee deaths, but Sprague noted that if it hadn't been for the 61 Red Tide deaths last year, the number would not have even been close to the record.

"We believe that the animal is going to be around forever," he said. "We don't believe that the public is going to allow numbers to get low enough for it to become extinct."

Blaming the rise in deaths on the fact that there are more manatees doesn't wash with Rose, from the Save the Manatee Club.

"We're not getting a large increase in mortality in places where we're seeing increasing or stable manatee populations," he said. Instead, he said, it is along the east coast and the southwest section of the state where manatee deaths are increasing while the populations are declining or mixed.

Crystal River in west Citrus County is preparing for the onslaught of visitors to the annual Florida Manatee Festival this weekend. Between finalizing her comments about the state's manatee management plan and arranging logistics for the arrival of the club's massive manatee promotional balloon for the festival, Save the Manatee co-chairwoman Helen Spivey was fretting over the latest mortality numbers.

But even more troubling to her was a state news release that tried to explain away the record number of deaths.

"I think it's a professional spin as good as the Democrats and Republicans put out," said Spivey, a former state legislator. "I think it's just spin, and I really hate to see a state agency spin something that means so much to an imperiled species."

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at 352 564-3621 or behrendt@sptimes.com.

[Last modified January 10, 2007, 00:20:03]


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