State likely to end 2020 with more manatee deaths than usual

Photo Courtesy: Save the Manatee Club
Photo Courtesy: Save the Manatee Club (Photo Courtesy: Save the Manatee Club)

TAMPA, Fla. – For four straight years, more manatees were found dead in Florida because they were hit by boats than ever before. That trend will break in 2020, but not on account of any good news for the state’s signature threatened species.

To the contrary, researchers were tracking more manatee deaths than usual this year. As of Dec. 11, at least 562 manatees had died in Florida, according to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. That was nearly two dozen more than the five-year average for the same time period.

“We did not have mass mortality, but manatees face the threat that they always do,” said Martine de Wit, a veterinarian in the state’s marine mammal lab. “That is watercraft issues.”

At least 88 manatees had died because of injuries from boats, though that is an undercount. Researchers saw their work interrupted because of the coronavirus pandemic, and for weeks in the spring they did not examine carcasses to determine causes of death.

“I’m convinced it’s well over 100,” said Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, about the boating-related death toll. Last year, the state reported 136 manatees killed because of watercraft collisions, out of 606 total.

Rose noted that the state’s five-year death average is inflated by an unusually high count of deaths in 2018, more than 800, when a large Red Tide bloom killed the beloved animals in droves. Florida did not suffer such a devastating bloom this year.

The uptick in boat deaths has come alongside higher numbers of registered boats, more than 961,000 last year, according to state data. While the pandemic forced closures that limited social outings this , boating was a notable exception.

“One of the few things people could still do was go out on the water,” de Wit said. “Obviously that exposes manatees to a higher risk of boat collisions.”