Manatee count ‘encouraging’

Despite the record number of manatees killed by the cold in 2010, wildlife officials are encouraged by the most recent manatee count, in which spotters tallied nearly 5,000 sea cows along Florida’s coasts.

That’s up more than 1,000 from the 2009 count, records show, but 236 fewer than the January 2010 survey, before the devastating cold took its toll.

The aerial surveys typically are held in late January, just after cold snaps, when most manatees are keeping cozy in the warm waters of power plant discharge canals or coastal springs. The counting is easier than in summer months when the manatees are scattered in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission conducted two counts last month, Jan. 20 and 24, and spotters counted 4,840 manatees. Along the state’s east coast, 2,438 manatees were seen and 2,402 were counted along the west coast.

Twenty observers from 11 organizations participated. The survey’s results become official in late February when the count is verified.

Biologists said the warming weather at the end of January proved perfect for the counts, now in their 20th year.

The results give researchers a minimum number of manatees in Florida waters.

It’s impossible to count every manatee, said Holly Edwards, a state biologist who participated in the count.

“We can’t use these numbers as a population estimate,” Edwards said.

But they provide a benchmark and help researchers monitor the marine mammal.

This year’s count is encouraging despite the January 2010 cold snap, which was blamed for the deaths of hundreds of manatees.

On one day alone that month, 17 manatees were reported dead from cold stress, a record number on a single day.

Scientists say more than 400 manatees likely succumbed to the cold in January 2010. By comparison, 429 deaths were recorded in all of 2009.

The previous record for cold-related manatee deaths was 56.

Katie Tripp, director of science and conservation with the Save The Manatee Club, said the count reinforces the assertion that manatees need warm water spots to survive the winters.

“I think it will take several years to understand the impact of what happened last year and if there are any long-term effects,” she said.

Warm-water springs must be protected, along with manatee access to warm-water areas along the coast, Tripp said, “to make sure manatees are safe during the winter.”

There were 3,807 manatees counted in January 2009 and 5,076 in January 2010