Just last fall the news about manatees was dire. Florida’s Save the Manatees Club was reporting that a record number of sea cows had died in 2013, representing 15 percent of the state’s manatee population. By December, the club put the total number of manatee deaths at 829, more than twice the number of deaths recorded in 2012. Four manatee deaths were recorded in Flagler County, where manatee deaths have historically been very low.
But the first aerial survey of the state’s manatee population in three years reveals a brighter picture.
Biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported a preliminary count of 4,831 manatees in Florida during a statewide aerial survey conducted on Jan. 24 and Jan. 27. That’s the third-highest number of manatees recorded since such surveys began in 1991. No surveys were conducted in 2013 and 2012 because of unusually warm weather.
Over those two days in January, 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. The 4,831 manatee total compares with 5,011 counted in 2010 and 4,834 counted in 2011.
“We are encouraged by the relatively high count, especially given the high number of manatee deaths documented recently,” said Gil McRae, director of the FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. “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 count is not an actual census, but an indicator of trends. 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.
The surveys highlight the importance of warm-water habitat to manatees in the winter, increasing researchers’ understanding of manatee distribution and relative use of these areas that are essential to manatee health and survival. The survey information helps managers better protect this endangered species. The survey flights, FWC explains, are designed to maximize manatee counts by concentrating on shallow nearshore waters, where manatees and their primary food source, seagrasses, are located. Flight paths are parallel to the shoreline, and when manatees are sighted, the airplane circles until the researchers onboard are able to count the number of animals in each group. Scientists usually do not survey deeper waters. In urban areas or where waters are particularly opaque, some studies are made using small helicopters.
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.
Florida residents can help manatees by purchasing a manatee specialty license plate and a manatee decal. Funds from the license plate and decal support manatee research and conservation.