More than twice the annual number of manatee deaths set a record in Florida so far this year, with 1,003 of the mammals succumbing, almost twice the annual average of around 500, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
According to the commission, 1,003 manatees died from Jan. 1 to Nov. 12, which is almost twice the five-year average of 524 deaths per year.
''It remains critically important people be aware of manatees while on the water as we continue to work with partners to monitor and respond to the ongoing mortality event along Florida's east coast,'' said Ron Mezich, imperiled species management section leader, in the commission's most recent report.
''We are continuing to explore a variety of options to assist manatees and the goal for the FWC and our partners continues to be restoring the Indian River Lagoon to a healthy state. In the end, that is the solution that will benefit manatees and other wildlife.''
The aquatic mammals migrate to the warmer waters off the coast of Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, with temperatures around 68 degrees Fahrenheit, to survive the winter.
Although manatees can be large, boaters often have a hard time seeing them, and should slow down and keep watch to avoid killing or injuring them, the commission said.
Many of the manatees killed this year have not had their deaths explained, and the kill-off is being investigated by the commission.
The number is high enough, however, to classify the deaths as an ''unusual mortality event,'' as declared by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The federal agency defines these events as ''a stranding that is unexpected; involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population; and demands immediate response."
Criteria for determining such an event include an increase in magnitude, or a change in the nature or morbidity, or mortality when compared to previous years, a ''temporal'' change in morbidity, mortality, or stranding is taking place, according to the agency.
Most of these events occur of the coasts of Florida and California, and manatees are among the most common victims.
According to the agency, most of the deaths remain unexplained, but are usually due to infections, biotoxins, human interaction or malnutrition.
The Florida state agency is asking all boaters to be careful and observe the state's manatee protection zones.
''Disturbing manatees at warm-water sites can cause them to swim out of those protected areas and into potentially life-threatening cold water,'' the agency said on its website.
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