Survey Says: Threats Still Loom for Manatees

By Dr. Katie Tripp
Director of Science & Conservation   

For further information, contact:

Janice Nearing
Director of Public Relations
Phone: (407) 539-0990
E-mail: jnearing@savethemanatee.org

Opinion-Editorial
For Immediate Release: January 6, 2009

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) recently released the preliminary 2008 manatee mortality statistics. The total was 337. I'm often asked to comment on such numbers – how do they compare with previous years and what do they say about the manatee population's recovery? The truth is that the causes of these deaths and an investigation of other, habitat-scale threats must be conducted to begin to understand how manatees will fare in the future.

The 2008 manatee mortality totals fell below the previous 5-year average of 357 deaths. However, this same 5-year period (2003-2007) represented the highest average number of deaths on record, and far surpassed the 5-year average for the period from 1998-2002, which was 281 deaths. Additionally, the 90 watercraft mortalities documented in 2008 well exceeded the 5-year average of 77 observed from 2003-2007. All told, 99 manatees were confirmed to have died from human-related causes (watercraft, flood gate/canal lock, and other human) in 2008, and it is likely that a number of manatees whose causes of death could not be determined or whose carcasses were unrecovered also died from human-related causes. Furthermore, some cold-related and perinatal deaths may also be associated with human activities (i.e. the reduction of spring flows at a warm water site or the death of a calf following the loss of its mother in a fatal watercraft strike). Research has indicated that many manatees may be dying at an early age, falling far short of their expected life span of 60+ years. These premature, often human-induced mortalities threaten the longevity of Florida's manatee population, and must be minimized if we are going to successfully recover manatees.

In addition to analyzing the eight mortality categories identified by FWC, we must be concerned with the health of the aquatic habitat in which manatees live. This focus on habitat will become increasingly important in the future, as Florida's human population continues to grow and the effects of climate change accelerate. In Florida, rising sea levels are expected to displace coastal human populations, and manatees may move into uncharted and unregulated waterways. Manatees are also negatively affected by attempts to weaken important wildlife laws, such as the federal Endangered Species Act, which recently underwent destructive modifications that must now be swiftly reversed by the incoming administration.

The bottom line on the 2008 manatee mortality is this: we have a long way to go to ensure that manatees will have a fighting chance at living out their natural lifespan without the ever-present threat of human indifference.

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