Manatees die at record pace

Florida’s endangered manatees died in 2006 at a pace that was nearly record-setting, state wildlife officials reported.

The state’s most recent tally on Dec. 8 showed 392 manatee deaths in Florida waters in 2006, about a dozen deaths shy of setting a grim new record.

Florida’s manatee death record was set in 1996 when 415 deaths were recorded, many due to a deadly marine algae bloom called red tide.

Red tide is also a factor in this year’s deaths, said Ken Arrison, a marine biologist with the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The algae is toxic to marine life.

“What threw us over the edge is there was a red tide event in the Everglades,” Arrison said.

Eighteen manatees were killed by red tide in the Ten Thousand Islands area of the Everglades between Nov. 9 and Dec. 2, authorities said.

Red tide levels in the region have dropped, but not disappeared. Researchers think red tide has killed about 49 manatees statewide this year.

Boat collisions killed 82 manatees between Jan. 1 and Dec. 8, the report said. Manatees are often hit by boats when they surface to breathe.

An annual survey released earlier this year found 3,116 manatees in Florida waters, up from 1,267 in 1991, the first year the census was conducted.

But state scientists said the increase shown in the survey is partly a result of better techniques for finding the animals.

In February, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted unanimously to designate the manatee as a threatened species rather than endangered, saying the animal’s population is on the rebound.

Manatees are still protected by the 1973 federal Endangered Species Act.

Scientists have said the manatee population is expected to drop 50 percent over the next five decades because of habitat loss, boat collisions and red tide algae. Still, they said the species is not endangered – a classification that denotes a species on the brink of extinction.

“We really hope people understand what is really going on here,” said Pat Rose, government relations director of the Save the Manatee Club.

“The threats to manatees aren’t getting less; they’re increasing.”