Volunteers from 11 different agencies counted more than 6,000 manatees in Florida waters last month. That’s nearly 1,000 more than were counted five years ago the last time such a high count was conducted.
The 20 volunteer observers counted 3,333 manatees along the Atlantic coast and 2,730 in the Gulf of Mexico. Officials with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission attribute this year’s success with warm temperatures and sunny days.
“Manatees used warm-water sites and other winter habitat areas to cope with a strong cold front that recently moved through the region,” said FWC biologist Holly Edwards. “In many of the regions surveyed, warm, sunny weather caused manatees to rest at the water’s surface, which facilitated our efforts to count them in these areas. Calm waters and high visibility also contributed to the high count.”
The agency conducts aerial surveys each year. The surveys count only those manatees visible at the surface of the water and are considered a minimum population number.
“We were very fortunate to have near-optimal conditions for our survey this year,” said FWRI Director Gil McRae. “The high count this year is especially encouraging, given the large-scale mortality events that resulted in over 800 deaths in 2013.”
While the count does not prove that the manatee population has grown by 1,000, it does tell researchers that there are at least 6,000 manatees living in the waters surrounding Florida.
“Counting this many manatees is wonderful news,” said FWC Chairman Richard Corbett. “The high count this year shows that our long-term conservation efforts are working.”
The surveys are done weather-permitting because conditions have to meet a certain set of criteria. The air temperature must be less than 50 degrees near places where manatees congregate for at lest three of the five days prior to a count. Water temperatures have to be less than 68 degrees and wind speeds cannot exceed 15 knots on the day of the survey throughout the survey area. Weather must also be clear on the day of the survey.
The counts are conducted along Florida’s east coast from Jacksonville to the Florida Keys. The survey covers the Gulf Coast from the Wakulla River in Florida’s Panhandle to the Everglades.