Is Florida on track for a record year of manatee deaths?

166 manatee deaths reported statewide so far in 2018

MIAMI – A watchdog group says Florida is on pace for another record year for manatee deaths.

So far, 166 manatees have died statewide through March 2. Cold spells are to blame for 51 deaths.

"That does tend to affect the smaller ones a little bit more because they don't have the fat storage that the older ones do. But that being said, we've seen all size ranges affected by it," said Bill Greer with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The marine mammal biologist recovered a 4-foot-long, 70-pound calf Monday from the Indian River under the Max Brewer Bridge in Titusville.

The discovery marked at least death No. 23 this year in Brevard County. 

"It's awful. It's really sad," Ashley Murray and Krista Vaughan said after witnessing the manatee during a walk across the bridge. 

Murray and Vaughan, who also kayak at Haulover Canal, said they're noticing fewer manatees in the Indian River Lagoon.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility Executive Director Jeff Ruch says Florida manatees are one big freeze away from an ecological disaster.

Red tide and boating deaths are another concern as manatees seeking warm waters often get stuck in residential canals.

Florida's annual manatee counts have more than doubled in the past 20 years, to more than 6,600. The federal government reclassified them from endangered to threatened.

"Anytime you have more animals, eventually they're going to pass. There is some logic to that," Greer said.

Florida Today reports that a researcher at Florida Atlantic University is working on an alarm that could alert manatees of an approaching boat, possibly reducing deaths.

In 2017, 538 manatees died compared with 472 manatee deaths in 2016.

A record 830 manatees died in 2013. If this year's pace does not change, nearly 1,000 manatees would die.

The FWC did not determine at the scene what caused the manatee recovered Monday to die. A necropsy will be performed.