It's great news for conservationists, biologists and boaters.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's manatee count the week of Jan. 19 turned in - by far - the highest number of animals recorded since counts began in 1991, with a remarkable total count of 3,807 manatees statewide.
Most of the survey was done from the air, and ideal conditions are thought to have contributed to the high numbers, according to Fish and Wildlife Research Institute biologist Holly Edwards. A combination of cold weather to concentrate the animals in temperature refuges and clear, calm weather to allow good visibility always delivers a good count. In fact, manatee counts have shown slightly lower numbers in the seven years since the former high of 3,100 was recorded in 2001, mostly because a series of warm winters kept the animals dispersed.
State biologists and members of Save the Manatee Club point out that the surveys are not actual population counts and should not be used to assess trends in manatee numbers. But there can be no doubt that the numbers of manatees are increasing. Anglers, boaters and waterfront homeowners statewide report more sightings all the time, and the latest survey supports those observations.
In the 1970s, when it was first realized manatees were in decline, rough estimates put the numbers at a scant 600 animals. While that was little more than a guess, there's no question that conservation measures put in place since then have gradually brought back the population. The giant sea cows are doing great despite the combination of more development, more powerboats and red tides.
It's a true conservation success story.
Boaters didn't always like the necessary regulations, but the slow-speed and no-wake zones in some areas reduced some of the mortality caused by boats. Also, closing some winter refuges to human activities allowed the animals a better chance to survive in tough winters.
Today, there are at least 1,654 manatees on Florida's west coast and 2,153 on the east coast. Researchers know there are numerous animals that go uncounted, but these are the minimums, the ones they actually saw.
For the conservationists who pushed hard to limit boating traffic in many areas, it's a victory. But for boaters and anglers, the manatee restoration should be a victory, as well. What it means is that the rules we have now are enough; there's no need to put an end to boat ramps, marinas or powerboat operation altogether in order to save the manatee, because the manatee has been saved.
No-wake zones so enormous that they make boating impractical also are obviously not necessary. The manatees are doing just fine with the rules in place now.
In fact, barring another major kill by red tide - as we had in 2005 - it seems likely that manatee biologists might at some point in the not-too-distant future have to ask themselves what would have been unthinkable questions 20 years ago: How many manatees are enough? And can there be such a thing as too many manatees?
Every other species eventually runs up against the limits of its habitat as numbers expand. Is it possible that manatees, which graze only in the thin band of habitat where sea grasses grow, might someday eat themselves out of groceries? Each adult animal gulps down about 100 pounds of grass per day, biologists say, and so far the grass is keeping up. But will that be the case 20 years from now if we have 6,000 manatees by that time? What impact will the consumption of all that grass have on grass-dependent fish such as sea trout? And how do you handle contraception in a 1,200-pound marine mammal?
Those are interesting questions, but it's nice to be asking them. The chances of manatee extinction seem to be fading rapidly, and biologists in the future might be more concerned about managing the booming sea cow population rather than making sure it doesn't disappear.