Biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported a preliminary count of 4,831 manatees in Florida during this year’s statewide aerial survey, conducted in late January.
A team of 20 observers from nine organizations counted 2,317 manatees on Florida’s east coast and 2,514 on the west coast of the state.
“This year’s manatee count is the third highest we have recorded since the first statewide aerial survey in 1991,” said Gil McRae, director of the FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. “We are encouraged by the relatively high count, especially given the high number of manatee deaths documented recently. Information on warm-water habitat use from this year’s survey will be integrated with manatee survival and reproductive rates to update future population projections.”
The goal of the aerial manatee survey is to count as many manatees as possible, providing researchers with a minimum number for manatees in Florida waters and a snapshot of where they are at the time of the survey.
Weather conditions and manatee behavior during the survey have a large effect on survey counts. Because these factors vary from year to year, this count cannot be used to determine long-term population trends.
“After two winters of above-average temperatures, this year we received several consecutive, strong cold fronts that helped to gather manatees at warm-water sites where they could be more easily counted,” said FWC manatee biologist Holly Edwards.
The surveys highlight the importance of warm-water habitat to manatees in the winter, increasing researchers’ understanding of manatee distribution and relative use of these areas that are essential to manatee health and survival. The survey information helps managers better protect this endangered species.
Researchers have been conducting statewide aerial surveys since 1991, weather permitting, to meet the state’s requirement for an annual count of manatees in Florida waters.
Statewide aerial surveys were not conducted during the winters of 2012 and 2013 due to warm-weather conditions.