GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) - A record number of manatees were killed in 2016 by boat strikes, according to state wildlife data, but overall the number of the beloved sea cows increased in Florida this year.
Data posted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission data show that 98 endangered manatees died by watercraft strikes between Jan. 1 and Dec. 2. The previous record was 97 in 2009, according to state records.
A count earlier this year found about 6,300 manatees in Florida, which is up from last year and the most since 1991. As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed designating the manatees as threatened, rather than endangered, species. The agency's decision is expected in early 2017.
FWC says the final mortality numbers are still being finalized but should be released soon.
"The numbers of live manatees are up. The percentage of watercraft related deaths is still pretty similar to other years, even though the number is a little higher," said Carol Knox, the FWC's imperiled species section leader.
Knox said once the final numbers are in, the agency will review whether any changes are needed to its policies or enforcement practices to better protect the sea cows from boaters.
Overall, the data show 472 manatees died in 2016, with 139 deaths still undetermined and 72 due to natural causes. The record for total deaths occurred in 2013, with 830.
Jacki Lopez of the Center for Biological Diversity says the high numbers of boat strike deaths this year shows that more emphasis is needed on enforcement and education.
"It's in part a failure of enforcement, there aren't enough officers to cover around a million registered boats in Florida," she said. "And there's no required manatee education that Florida boaters have to take, which is ludicrous considering the volume of people on the water."
While they don't know why more manatees died from boat strikes in 2016, warmer weather combined with lower fuel prices may have played a role in getting more boats on the water, said Chuck Underwood of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"The warmer weather also caused manatees to disperse more areas," the spokesman said.
Wildlife officials say people need to abide by posted slow zones — meant to make boats travel slower so manatees can be spotted and avoided.
Knox said the data will be used to help the enforcement officers they do have better understand where to patrol.
They also recommend that boat operators wear polarized sunglasses, which help one see beneath the water better.
In the end, with Florida now home to the third largest human population in the U.S. and manatee numbers increasing, it may be that the higher manatee deaths from watercraft strikes are simply a matter of numbers.
"It's a factor, but it's never quite as simple as one thing," said FWC's Knox. "But it probably plays a role for sure."