Last year was hard on state manatees, when a record 830 died. But as federal officials consider reclassifying the gentle giants as threatened instead of endangered -- a move regarded as overdue by some -- state officials are tapping on the brakes.
The state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is proposing slow-speed zones in 21 areas along western Pinellas County waterways to reverse an apparent upward trend in manatee strikes by hulls and propellers on watercraft.
"This is a comprehensive look at the whole Intracoastal Waterway, but the only area the [restrictions] will have an impact on travel time is that area south of the Pasadena Bridge [Corey Causeway]," FWC biologist Scott Calleson told the Tampa Bay Times.
Roughly 6,500 sea cows live in Florida, according to multiple estimates, and about 300 to 450 perish in an average year, mainly because of old age, disease and boat strikes. This year, according to preliminary data from the FWC, 294 deaths have been recorded through Sept. 19, including:
The slow-speed zones proposal -- which affects 46 miles of waterways -- now heads to the FWC commissioners, who will meet Nov. 19-20 in Miami/Key Largo. Formal rulemaking by the commissioners requires another public comment period, including at least one public hearing, according to state law.
Last year, red tide contributed to the record state mortality rate, causing 276 deaths in Southwest Florida, which is home to about 3,000 manatees.
FWC researchers say manatee deaths in Pinellas waters increased from three in the 1990s to 39 in 2000-2012 because of boat strikes.
"Since 2000 there've been 39. So it went from one every two years, to three or so a year," Calleson said at a recent public hearing in Treasure Island.
The Indian Rocks Beach Boat Club voted 48-2 to oppose the proposed regulations, the Times reported.
"Travel time is an important issue for many boaters," said Bob Griffin, the club president. "This could have a major impact on businesses. Some people will stop going to restaurants on the Intracoastal if they can't get there by boat."
The feds are not expected to make their decision on lifting endangered status for manatees before next July.