There may be good news for Florida’s favorite sea cows.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recently reported a record minimum count of 6,250 manatees in its annual aerial survey of the state’s waters, which includes sites with large manatee gatherings. This breaks the last record of 5,077 manatees in 2010.
Though this is just a minimum count and not necessarily a trend, the discovery seems to support growing data that suggests the endangered marine mammal may be bouncing back.
In February, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed reclassifying the West Indian manatee from “endangered” to “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. (See amazing pictures of manatees.)
The proposal is available for public review and comment until April 7, and the agency will announce its final decision sometime in 2017, FWS Florida Manatee Recovery coordinator Jim Valade told National Geographic.
If the FWS does end up reclassifying the manatee to threatened, existing Federal protection and conservation laws will remain unchanged.
“A reclassification to threatened would not mean that it’s time to reduce protections,” Valade said. “To the contrary, it would mean that conservation efforts continue as needed to insure protection for this iconic species.”
Often called sea cows because of their large bulk, slow pace, and plant-eating habits, the West Indian manatee mostly lives along the Florida and Gulf Coasts and throughout the Caribbean. (See a map of their range in Florida.)
The species has declined in recent decades due to boat collisions, entanglements in fishing gear, and habitat loss. The West Indian manatee was declared a U.S. federally endangered species in 1966.
According to Valade, the recent increase in the manatee’s population is largely due to decades of conservation efforts by several governments and organizations. “We believe that the Florida manatee population will persist into the future,” Valade said.
Laws set in place in protected areas have helped to cut down on the number of manatee deaths and injuries caused by boat accidents. (Learn how we're loving manatees to death.)
The calm yet curious manatee may look easy-going, but it can be a tough animal to study.
Kyler Abernathy, Crittercam’s director of research for remote imaging, and colleagues found it nearly impossible to attach the device on the doughy, egg-shaped animal.
After three years of designing and testing, they finally hit on something that stayed put: a loose harness fastened around the top of a manatee's tail, with an attached camera floating above and behind the animal.
Abernathy hopes the technology can help give new insight into the manatee’s daily life—and help scientists save the gentle beast.
Follow Wajeeha Malik on Twitter [@WajeehaM]