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Cold weather, humans cause record number of manatee deaths

By Staff | Oct 27, 2010

A total of 656 manatees have died so far this year, a record in the state of Florida.
According to the Florida Fish and WIldlife Conservation Commission, a portion of that figure is attributed to the vicious cold snap the state experienced early in January, but humans have also had their hand in that record-setting number.
FWCC Spokeswoman Karen Parker said 244 of those deaths were due to “cold stress,” 63 were attributed to water crafts, 70 were perinatal, 15 were of natural causes, 193 were “undetermined,” 69 were “unrecovered,” and two were classified as “other.”
Parker said the agency is going to step up its efforts to educate the public about manatee safety.
“I think there’s a lot of concern out there, from the agency and the public. The manatee is a very loved animal,” Parker said. “A lot of times people don’t realize they’re even there and then they get hit by boats.”
Parker said the state posted 419 manatee deaths in 2009, which was then a record.
“It’s been a very, very bad year for manatees,” she said.
Through Sept. 30 of this year, there have been 58 manatee deaths in Lee County, according to the FWCC.
Twenty-three of those deaths were due to cold stress, nine were water craft related, seven were parinatal, four were from natural causes, 13 were undetermined, one was “other” and one was “unrecovered,” according to the FWCC.
Parker said the agency is hoping that weather does not play a factor in next year’s mortality numbers.
Parker does warn boaters, however, that as the year progresses and the water temperatures begin to cool, manatees will start to head south in search of warmer warmer water temps.
“Watch and be careful in manatee zones because they will go any place where there’s warm water,” she said.
At Manatee Park in Fort Myers, Nancy Kilmartin said the manatees begin to arrive in December.
A senior program specialist at the park, Kilmartin said the manatees hung around until April this year because it took that long for water temperatures to rise above 68 degrees.
“Manatees seek refuge below 68 degrees … they show up in droves when the gulf temperature dips below that mark,” she said.
She added that the cold temperatures laid waste to the animal’s immune system, which caused many of the deaths. Manatees are mammals.
“Unfortunately, the cold snap is a natural phenomenon,” she said.
Park staff and volunteers do their part to educate the public on manatees by hosting free educational tours and programs starting Dec. 6 of this year.
When the manatees do start to arrive in the park, so do the spectators, as over 288,000 people visited between December 2009 and April 2010.
“We had thousands of people visit each day,” Kilmartin said.
Orlando based Save the Manatee Club is trying to raise awareness of the mortality rate by reminding Floridians that November is “Save the Manatee” month.
While a record number of the animals have died this year, club Executive Director Patrick Rose said things could be even worse next year. Only time will tell what the weather will be like as the winter months arrive, but Rose thinks there are other dangers out there.
Rose said, “The population suffered record-setting mortality in the first part of the year from cold stress, and we’re still uncertain as to what the long-term effects will be on the manatees habitat from the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.”
For a full list of programs available at Manatee Park, visit leeparks.org, or call 690-5030.