News Press

2009’s been a deadly year for manatees

Lee’s total is highest as state sets record

By Brian Liberatore

December 19, 2009

This has been the worst year on record for Florida’s manatees. And Lee County leads the way in deaths of the endangered mammals.

State biologists have recorded 419 manatee deaths in 2009 — 56 in Lee.

That’s the most since the state started keeping records in 1974.

The previous worst was 417 in 2006.

The preliminary numbers show 94 boat-related deaths. That’s up 13 percent from last year. And it’s just one shy of the record set in 2002.

Lee County, with 18 watercraft-related deaths, is the highest in the state.

Final statistics will be available the first week of January.

Advocates for the animals have renewed calls for more effective enforcement of existing laws.

“Let’s find ways, without being onerous on boaters, to be smarter about it,” said Patrick Rose, a biologist and the executive director of the Save the Manatee Club.
“We’ve got some bad apples out there. Let’s get them to comply and keep working with science to better understand these issues.”

Rose is advocating that speed cameras help with enforcement — similar to those used to catch traffic light offenders.

Along with an uptick in deadly watercraft encounters, the state’s manatees this year faced a string of cold spells and an inexplicably high mortality rate among infant manatees. Biologists recorded 114 deaths of young manatees this year.

Cold-related deaths, at 55, were more than twice last year’s 21 deaths.

“There were these strange peaks of severe cold,” said Martine Dewit, a biologist for the state’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. “(Manatees) are extremely susceptible to temperatures below 68 degrees."

While manatee numbers are increasing slightly in some northwest and eastern parts of the state, Rose said, higher population numbers alone can’t explain the rise in deaths. In Southwest Florida especially, manatees are on the decline, Rose said.

Rose is urging boaters to use extra caution this month.

“Let’s not break the (watercraft-related death) record, too,” Rose said.