MIAMI -- Florida tallied a record number of manatees in an annual count of wintering sea cows, state wildlife officials reported Thursday.
Aerial surveys put the total at 6,250, about 200 more manatees than counted last year and the most since surveys started in 1991. While higher, wildlife officials say the number represents a status quo for the lumbering manatees that once swam along Florida's shores in vast herds before being hunted nearly to extinction.
The results, while good news, were more likely the result of good weather than manatees returning to historic numbers, said Pat Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club.
"A couple of hundred is not enough to say whether there are more manatees," he said.
The count comes as federal wildlife officials get ready to wrap up public comment on a proposal to reclassify manatees in Florida and Puerto Rico from endangered to threatened. In January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced its plan following increased pressure from the boating industry, which has long objected to speed zones and dock restrictions.
Rose, however, said federal wildlife officials failed to use the most recent projections for growth and development in Florida when calculating risks to manatees and pointed out that already this year 94 manatees have died, including 16 in Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties.
Ninty-four manatees were killed statewide so far this year
"The model assumes that threats and risks from human population growth and development in Florida is going to stay the same," he said. "That's the one thing we can count on that won't be the case."