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TALLAHASSEE, Florida -- After nearly two weeks of record cold weather in Florida, biologists counted an all-time-high number of manatees during the annual synoptic survey the week of Jan. 11.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) Fish and Wildlife Research Institute reported a preliminary count of 5,067 manatees statewide. A team of 21 observers from 10 organizations counted 2,779 manatees on Florida’s East Coast and 2,288 on the West Coast. The final numbers will be available at the end of February, following verification of the survey data.
This year’s count exceeded the previous high count from 2009 by more than 1,200 animals. The survey conditions were favorable for aerial observations in both years, but were especially favorable this year as a result of the extended period of cold weather.
“This year’s high count reflects the influence that weather has on aerial survey results,” said FWC biologist Holly Edwards. “The record-breaking cold temperatures helped to bring many more manatees to the warm-water sites than in previous years. In addition, the calm, clear weather conditions on the days of the survey helped us to see and count record numbers.”
The goal of the synoptic survey is to count as many manatees as possible. The survey results provide researchers with a minimum number of manatees in Florida waters at the time of the survey. Synoptic results are not population estimates and should not be used to assess trends.
While this year’s results do not mean the manatee population grew by more than 1,200 animals in a single year, they do tell researchers there are at least 5,000 manatees in Florida waters. The FWC is encouraged to have counted so many manatees. The high count is consistent with models that show the manatee population is growing or stable in most areas of the state.
“Counting this many manatees is wonderful news,” said FWC Chairman Rodney Barreto. “The high count this year shows that our long-term conservation efforts are working.”
The cold weather that helped researchers obtain the record high count also highlighted the importance of warm-water habitat for the species. During the recent cold snap, biologists noted unusually large numbers of manatees gathered in the warm-water sites for extended periods of time. FWC researchers, managers and law enforcement officers closely monitored the large numbers of manatees dependent on these sites. To maintain the species into the future, the FWC will continue to monitor threats such as loss of warm-water habitat which, models indicate, can profoundly affect the manatee population.