December 30,2012-12-31


Manatees loved 2012; Lee boats, not so much

Fewer died than in recent years, but local waters more deadly.

By Chad Gillis

Lee County manatee boat deaths are approaching record numbers for 2012 as the year comes to a close, but the protected marine mammals are faring much better across the state this year as compared to 2010’s 766 recorded deaths.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has documented 372 manatee deaths through Dec. 21 in Florida. That’s less than half of the number that died during extended cold fronts in 2010 that also caused the closure of snook season in this area for the past two years. There were 453 deaths in 2011.

“The overall number seems to be pretty average,” said Dr. Marine de Wit, a veterinarian with the Florida Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg. “Some numbers stand out, like water-control structures. This year we’re (at almost) four times the average.”

The control-structure deaths happened mostly at the Ortona Lock in November, when a gate malfunction killed several sea cows over a week. The control structure is in Moore Haven and is used to direct flow rates from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee River, a winter manatee stronghold thanks mostly to warm water discharges from the Florida Power & Light plant east of Interstate 75.

Final manatee mortality numbers for 2012 will be released in January.

Manatee advocacy groups say the death figures are better than they have been in recent years, but that percautions are needed to ensure the species’ long-term survival.

“It’s good news in that we aren’t hitting all-time highs, but these are still high numbers,” said Pat Rose with Save the Manatee Club. “We could finish close to 400 (overall deaths by the end of the year), and that would put us in the top five years.”

Lee County is the second deadliest county for sea cows so far this year with 19 boat-related deaths (most in the state) and 74 overall carcasses recovered. Only Brevard County reported more deaths with 85. Collier County reported three boat deaths and a total of nine dead sea cows in 2012.

“I saw that,” Rose said about the boat deaths. “We’ll be looking through those numbers and looking for any patterns or issues.”

De Wit said red tide outbreaks have also killed manatees in Lee County waters, most recently in November.

The population of Florida manatees is impossible to tally because the animals live in coastal waters and often can’t be seen from land or the air. The state conducts synoptic counts when weather conditions are ideal, providing a bottom-level population number. The highest count found 5,077 manatees in state waters in January of 2010.

The Florida manatee is a subspecies of the West Indian manatee. An old rumor suggests that manatees were imported to Florida to combat and control the spread of aquatic plants. Scientists, however, have recorded manatee bones that were millions of years old.

The state started keeping manatee mortality records in 1974. Dead, sick, injured or tagged manatees can be reported to the FWC at (888) 404-3922