Numbers surprised biologists who were alarmed by a rash of manatee deaths in 2012 and 2013.
ST. PETERSBURG — Biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) reported a preliminary count of 4,831 manatees in Florida during this year’s statewide aerial survey, conducted in late January.
During a two-day period (Jan. 24 and Jan. 27), a team of 20 observers from nine organizations counted 2,317 manatees on Florida’s east coast and 2,514 on the west coast of the state. The final numbers will be available following verification of survey data.
“This year’s manatee count is the third highest we have recorded since the first statewide aerial survey in 1991,” said Gil McRae, director of the FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. “We are encouraged by the relatively high count, especially given the high number of manatee deaths documented recently. Information on warm-water habitat use from this year’s survey will be integrated with manatee survival and reproductive rates to update future population projections.”
The goal of the aerial manatee survey is to count as many manatees as possible, providing researchers with a minimum number for manatees in Florida waters and a snapshot of where they are at the time of the survey. Weather conditions and manatee behavior during the survey have a large effect on survey counts. Because these factors vary from year to year, this count cannot be used to determine long-term population trends.
“After two winters of above-average temperatures, this year we received several consecutive, strong cold fronts that helped to gather manatees at warm-water sites where they could be more easily counted,” said FWC manatee biologist Holly Edwards.
The surveys highlight the importance of warm-water habitat to manatees in the winter, increasing researchers’ understanding of manatee distribution and relative use of these areas that are essential to manatee health and survival. The survey information helps managers better protect this endangered species.
Researchers have been conducting statewide aerial surveys since 1991, weather permitting, to meet the state’s requirement for an annual count of manatees in Florida waters. Statewide aerial surveys were not conducted during the winters of 2012 and 2013 due to warm-weather conditions.
Last month, state wildlife officials reported that 829 manatees died in Florida waters in 2013. Fifteen deaths occurred in Pinellas County and 16 in Hillsborough County.
Last year's record total nearly matched the total death toll from the previous two years, which were 453 and then 392. A total of 766 deaths were recorded in 2010.
Florida residents can help manatees by purchasing a manatee specialty license plate and a manatee decal. Funds from the license plate and decal support manatee research and conservation. Go to BuyaPlate.com to learn more about the license plate and MyFWC.com/ManateeSeaTurtleDecals to purchase a decal. Both items are available at county tax collectors’ offices.
To learn more about statewide aerial surveys, visit MyFWC.com/Research/Manatee and click on “Population Monitoring and Aerial Surveys.” To learn more about manatee conservation, go to MyFWC.com/Manatee.