Florida manatee deaths decreased in 2007
By Jim Loney
MIAMI (Reuters) - The number of endangered manatees that died in Florida waters last year dropped by 24 percent, according to preliminary report on Monday from the state's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The commission, which in December postponed a decision on whether to remove the manatee from the state's endangered species list, said 317 manatees died in 2007 compared to 417 in 2006, the highest death toll on record.
An annual census found 2,817 manatees in state waters last year, down from 3,113 the previous year.
The number of deaths blamed on boats also dropped significantly, from 92 in 2006 to 73 in 2007, the report said.
Manatee death counts can swing wildly from year to year and the wildlife commission cautioned not to read too much into the decline.
"It's not that we're not encouraged by the lower numbers, but we look at longer-term trends," commission spokeswoman Wendy Quigley said. "It's not definitive that this is a trend."
The commission decided last month to delay a decision on a recommendation from its research staff to reclassify the manatee to "threatened" because it no longer met the criteria for "endangered" status.
The reclassification had seemed imminent until a plea from Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who expressed concern about uncertain population counts, rising boat accidents and the record number of deaths recorded in 2006.
Wildlife officials say a change in status from endangered to threatened would not diminish protection for the marine giant often called the sea cow.
Advocates for the popular mammal say it could be hurt by public perception that it is no longer in danger.
The West Indian manatee, related to the African and Amazon versions and to the dugong of Australia, grows to 10 feet (3 meters) and more than 1,000 pounds (454 kg). Its wrinkled and whiskered face has won the hearts of generations of children.
Although they have no natural enemies, manatees are routinely crushed or drowned in canal locks, run over by speeding boats or hurt by fishing line and hooks. They are vulnerable to cold water in winter and to deadly blooms of "red tide" algae.
The Florida population is believed to have increased slightly in recent decades, in part due to boat speed restrictions. As a result, developers and boat industry interests have argued for easing restrictions to allow more construction of boat slips.
(Editing by )