Florida sets new record for manatee boat kills, Lee County leads state

Chad Gillis
Fort Myers News-Press

Lee County led the charge in 2019 as the state again broke the record for the number of manatees hit and killed by a watercraft. 

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission unofficial records say 137, or 23%, of documented deaths were cause by boat collisions. 

Twenty-six of the boat kills occurred in Lee County, which often leads the state. 

"Even for Lee, that's on the high side," said FWC marine biologist and manatee expert Martine de Wit.

Read:Cold temperatures will soon send manatees inland for winter

The total number of deaths recorded by FWC for 2019 was 606, which is the fourth highest overall total on record. 

"If you look at all the breakdowns, I would consider it an average year," de Wit said. "We broke the record for boat-related mortalities but that's not unexpected." 

The record for boat deaths is generally broken every few years.

Six manatees were killed by boats in Collier County last year. 

One school of thought is that there are more boaters on the water with more manatees, and the combination equals an increase in vessel-related kills. 

Nearly 1 million vessels were registered with Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles in 2018, the most recent year in which statistics were available. 

Lee County had the third largest number of registered vessels, with more than 48,000, trailing only Dade and Pinellas, according to the FHSMV

The manatee population has grown over the past 20 years, but it's hard to get exact numbers because counting manatees is difficult. 

Scientists now conduct aerial surveys each winter, when manatees are largely clustered in warm-water retreats like the Orange River near Fort Myers, and manually count the sea cows they see. 

It's not an accurate representation of the population but more a number that represents the minimum numbers of manatees in the state at one time. 

Still, that number has grown from 1,267 in 1991 to more than 6,600 in recent years, according to FWC records. 

"It's always hard to draw conclusions like that from looking at yearly numbers but I definitely would say there are more manatees than there were 20 years ago, so you automatically get more hits by boats," de Wit said. "There (are) more manatees and more people on the water, and you would expect that." 

Preliminary numbers from the 2019 count shows there were at least 900 manatees living in Lee County waters alone last winter. 

Jaclyn Lopez, with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the real problem is a lack of enforcement — that manatee speed zones work when monitored. 

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Lopez pointed out that the percentage of overall deaths is similar to recent years. 

"Normally we see 19 to 22 percent of human-caused mortality with water craft and we saw a little bit of a dip in that last year because we had the astonishing red tide," Lopez said.  

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That number dropped to 15% of overall deaths in 2018, possibly because fewer boaters were on the water with the drastic red tide conditions that smothered the coast for about 16 months, Lopez theorized. 

"We've been pretty lucky because it wasn't a bad red tide year or a really cold year but the boat deaths continue," Lopez said. "We're not getting a handle on it, and it's not going to get any easier." 

She said part of the problem is some boaters either don't like manatees or simply don't care if they impact threatened or endangered wildlife. 

"There's got to be some cultural shift," Lopez said. "There's a lot of boaters who respect wildlife and realize their boat can have an impact on other people and wildlife but some don't, and I think that's problematic." 

Other listed causes of death include natural (which includes red tide), undetermined, getting crushed in water control gates and cold stress, among others. 

Connect with this reporter: @ChadGillisNP on Twitter.