For the second consecutive year, preliminary manatee counts in the state show the sea cows' numbers over 6,000.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced this week that observers spotted 3,292 manatees on the state's east coast and 2,958 on the west coast.
The FWC dispatched a team of 16 observers from 11 organizations. This year and last year were the only two years on record for which the count has exceeded 6,000 manatees, according to an FWC press release.
In 2015, the FWC count turned up 6,063 manatees in state waters. FWC biologist Holly Edwards said that because some of the sea mammals go undetected, the count represents the minimum number of manatees known to be in an individual survey area on the day of the survey.
The counts are done in the winter because manatees tend to gather in herds in canals, springs and lagoons to escape cooler open waters.
Conservationists applaud the efforts that went into the rebounding population numbers, which were as low as 1,200 in 1991, but they fear the information will be used by advocates of a federal proposal to remove manatees from the Endangered Species list, where they've been since 1967.
"We do believe it's biologically and legally premature," said Patrick M. Rose, executive director of the Maitland-based Save the Manatee Club.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced it intends to reclassify the West Indian manatee, which includes the Florida manatee, to the "threatened" list. That would still keep all the protections in place for the manatees afforded to the mammal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978.
But Rose said assumptions the federal government are using to re-designate the manatee are flawed. For instance, he said human population and subsequent development are on the rise in Florida. This will result in loss of natural habitat for manatees.
"Within their model, they just assume human population growth and development in Florida is just going to stay the same," Rose said. "I don't think you have to go too much further than that to understand their model is flawed."
And what's beneficial to humans is often detrimental to wildlife, including manatees. Rose said federal and state protection isn't the only factor in rebounding manatee numbers. The great recession of 2008 meant less development. The bad economy coupled with high gasoline prices during that era also meant fewer boaters on the water -- boats represent the biggest threat to manatee safety.
But the economy recovered and we're paying less at the pump than we have in a decade. Already this year, four manatees have been killed in Miami-Dade County.
"I don't think we've even seen the tip of the spear in terms of growth and development," Rose said.
To report a dead or distressed manatee, call the FWC Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922).