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Another record year for manatee deaths

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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manateeFrigid waters off the coast of Florida have killed a record number of endangered manatees this year, according to state wildlife officials. The manatee—full name, the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus)—has been protected by the Endangered Species Act since 1974.

As of December 10, 699 manatee deaths had been documented this year in Florida waters, 244 of which were attributed to “cold stress.” Most of the year’s deaths occurred in January during what the National Weather Service called Florida’s coldest 12-day period since 1940.

This year’s death toll tops last year’s record of 429 deaths, 56 of which were caused by unusually cold weather. That was more than twice the number of cold-related deaths in 2008.

These numbers don’t count manatee deaths outside of Florida. The “sea cows,” as they are often called, do roam as far as Texas, and two were found dead in cold Mississippi waters this past week.

Part of the problem for manatees is that they have had to change their regular habitats and migration patterns to coexist with humans. According to the Save the Manatee Club, “coastal development pressures in southeast and southwest Florida have pushed manatees further north.” Meanwhile, the vast number of power plants heating the water in areas along the Florida coast has allowed the manatees to stay further north instead of migrating south for the winter, which puts them at risk of hypothermia when temperatures drop.

One area where manatees migrate for warmth is the Big Bend Power Station operated by Tampa Electric. Earlier this week, more than 300 live manatees were counted near the power station’s discharge canals, where water temperatures stay as high as 75 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the Associated Press. Another 100 were seen this week in a canal near Satellite Beach, where the waters were 25 degrees warmer than the nearby Banana River, which was just 50 degrees F. Water temperatures below 68 degrees F can be deadly to manatees.

Keeping manatees warm in the winter comes with a price. The animals continue to congregate in the Indian River Lagoon (along the state’s Atlantic coast) where a power plant stood until earlier this year, when it was demolished. In the absence of a power plant, Florida Power and Light is now spending up to $550 an hour to artificially heat the lagoon, according to a report from local news station WESH. Manatees have been migrating to the lagoon’s warm waters for more than 40 years.

The biggest gathering of manatees was further south in Palm Beach County, where an aerial survey last week counted more than 800 manatees, the highest number ever counted in the region in a single fly-over, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). This caused the FWC to increase patrols to enforce boating speed limits and to warn boaters to be cautious and look for manatees while on the water. “It’s a good thing the manatees are moving further south so they might be able to better protect themselves from the cold, but there’s concern because this is expected to be a big boating weekend,” FWC spokeswoman Gabriella Ferraro told the Palm Beach Post News.

The majority of manatee deaths are caused by watercraft. FWC officials say this year’s death-by-boat count, while not yet final, is expected to be on par with last year, when 97 manatees were killed by boaters.

Photo by Thomas Bucher via fotopedia





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  1. 1. craigtimes 10:40 am 12/30/2010

    In addition to breaking the record for manatee mortality, this year marked a record for the number of manatees counted in an aerial survey — 5,067, up from the 2009 count of 3,807. State officials say the increasing population is a sign that the controversial regulations protecting them are working. On the other hand, last year the number of manatees killed by boats hit a new record of 97, and scientists estimate 2/3 of all manatees carry scars from being hit by speeding boats. — Craig Pittman, author of "Manatee Insanity: Inside the War Over Florida’s Most Famous Endangered Species"

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  2. 2. ecopat 11:58 am 12/30/2010

    While it is true that the manatee population has been growing over the last 30 years and that there was a high count of over 5000 manatees last January, there have been more than 700 deaths this year, which is double the last five year average for total mortality. This level of mortality is not sustainable, especially when the manatee’s habitat continues to suffer major disruptions. Please go to: http://www.savethemanatee.org to learn more and how you can help.

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  3. 3. scarface 1:08 pm 12/30/2010

    Undoubtedly, the manatee saving power plant was torn down to make all the little green people feel "oh so good" about their environmental creds.

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  4. 4. jtizzi 6:14 pm 12/30/2010

    When they start implementing the research here (http://alistairdove.com/blog/2010/11/13/slow-down-mow-down.html) the number of deaths from boating will go way down.

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  5. 5. letxequalx 11:36 am 12/31/2010

    I think it is much wiser to quit playing footsie with the problem and address it directly. We will have thermal waste from power plants and it will affect manatee migration. What we can do is redesign the waterway and the thermal output to the waterways so that migration isn’t necessary at all. It is difficult to impossible to avoid having an impact but we can control the degree to which that impact is negative. Designing a combustion automobile with no emissions is tall order. Designed a car where we can control the kind of and distribution of emissions is little easier. Take the productive role instead of the idealistic one and you will produce results not vacillation. Migration patterns change – we now have Canada geese year round in New Jersey- but the important thing is we still have Canada geese ( a lot of people find them really annoying, I think they just wonderful to have around).

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  6. 6. Postman1 1:16 pm 12/31/2010

    Are the cold gulf waters, like the colder and snowier winters, a result of global warming? This is very confusing. Didn’t Al say we were supposed to have warm snow free winters by now? Shouldn’t Florida be underwater by now? Just saying.

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  7. 7. springwhitehorse 3:07 pm 12/31/2010

    I’ve been saying for years if all propellers on all boats in manatee waters had glance guards so water could pass thru but wildlife (manatee) would glance off a smooth grid frame covering the propeller deaths would be reduced and the fine for not having this grid frame on your boat would be confiscation and impounding till the frame is paid for including the fine

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  8. 8. springwhitehorse 3:10 pm 12/31/2010

    reestablish Manatees in other less populated areas of the world like polynesia(sp)

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  9. 9. Steve from Canuckistan 4:54 pm 01/5/2011

    How would you feel if somone told you that you had to move? They were here before us.

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  10. 10. Steve from Canuckistan 5:02 pm 01/5/2011

    You should do more reading. Cold winters in the mid latitudes are because of the record warmth in Canada’s arctic and in Greenland this fall and winter. In some cases temperatures are running 30 degrees above normal. Cold winters in Florida are what you get when we pollute the atmosphere with abandon. Get used to it. Over the coming decades this will be the least of mankind’s worries.
    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/opinion/and-now-the-weather-nasty-and-brutish/article1853702/comments/

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  11. 11. Steve from Canuckistan 5:13 pm 01/5/2011

    In reponse to scar face #3: If you would have read the article you would have found that "the vast number of power plants heating the water in areas along the Florida coast has allowed the manatees to stay further north instead of migrating south for the winter, which puts them at risk of hypothermia when temperatures drop." In other words the power plants only encourage them to engage in risky behavoiur…staying too far north. Take your childish politcs and mud slinging over to Fox News comment boards. You would fit right in.

    Link to this
  12. 12. Steve from Canuckistan 5:14 pm 01/5/2011

    In reponse to scar face #3: If you would have read the article you would have found that "the vast number of power plants heating the water in areas along the Florida coast has allowed the manatees to stay further north instead of migrating south for the winter, which puts them at risk of hypothermia when temperatures drop." In other words the power plants only encourage them to engage in risky behavoiur…staying too far north. Take your childish politcs and mud slinging over to Fox News comment boards. You would fit right in.

    Link to this

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