|Photo Credit: FWC|
MERRITT ISLAND, Florida — 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.
Over two days (Jan. 24 and 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.
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.
|Graphic Credit: SJRMD. Tropical Storm Fay, Florida Fish and Wildlife Manatee Count, Coldest Winter, Fukushima, and Superbloom added by Brevard Times
But the manatees’ continued high population count could spell trouble for the dying Indian River Lagoon. As the above graphic shows, there appears to be an inverse relationship with the manatee population counts and seagrass acreage in the Indian River Lagoon whenever the manatee count exceeds around 1,700 on Florida’s East Coast (the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission cautions that the published manatee survey count provides a minimum count of manatees, but it does not provide an accurate population estimate).
The manatees’ population comeback also resulted in an extraordinary event in recent years. Residents in Vero Beach witnessed the full extent of the sea cows’ voracious appetites’ end product in 2009 when a mile-long stretch of manatee fecal matter closed area beaches.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’ve lived along beaches all my life,” beach-goer Bill Becker told TCPalm. “It was disgusting, but mystifying. It looked like Great Dane poop all along the beach.”
According to a research study performed by the University of Florida and the U.S. Geological Survey in 2012, the record-breaking manatee population has grown so much in the last decade that they may be reclassified by wildlife management officials from endangered to threatened.