Last July, a powerboat collided with a manatee in Florida's Indian River Lagoon. She hung on in Sea World's rehabilitation center for a while, but on September 26 she broke a manatee record: the most deaths by boat collision in a single year since records began in 1974. She was the eighty-third, and that was only September. The eighty-fifth died just before this magazine went to press.
Boat collisions account for 33 percent of this year's manatee deaths, up from the usual 25 percent. Recreational boating and fishing interests say that's a good sign, because it means more manatees are out there -- 3,276 were counted from a plane in January 2001, up from 1,456 in 1991. But scientists at the Save the Manatee Club deny the baby boom: No animal that produces one calf every two to three years, they say, can double its numbers in a decade. "They're not rabbits," says Patti Thompson, the club's science and conservation director. The 2001 count day was phenomenally clear and still, so more manatees were visible. Past counts were simply too low, she says, and boat-related mortality has exceeded what you could expect from even realistic population growth.
Meanwhile, Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission plans in January to change the manatee's state designation from "endangered" to "threatened." It's not the urgency of their peril that's changed, but the vocabulary describing it. To be endangered under the new rules, a species will have to face an 80 percent population decline in the next forty-five years, number fewer than 250 adults, or have a fifty-fifty chance of extinction within half a century. "I can't think of any Florida animal that would make the cut," says Thompson.
The federal endangered status will remain, and protections -- like powerboat speed limits -- should hold. But protections depend on public support, and if the manatee is merely "threatened," Floridians might care less.
So if there's been no population boom, why all the boat deaths? It might be the weather. When it's cold, manatees snuggle around hot springs and nuclear plants' discharge pipes. When it's warm, manatees are out "doing what manatees do," says Thompson. "Unfortunately, the same is true of boaters."
-- Gillian Ashley