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Researchers Say St. Johns River Manatee Population Rebounding

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Northeast Florida’s manatee population is rebounding, according to new research Jacksonville University.

This week scientists counted the most manatees ever spotted during a single count.

The St. Johns River quietly laps at the docks of Jacksonville’s Metropolitan Park on Thursday. Soon, loud boat engines will carry Memorial Day revelers along this route. And that puts the area’s manatees at risk, Jacksonville University researcher Gerry Pinto said.

“There are threats out there and we still have boats using the waterways that still hit manatees — still kill manatees — but as long as the public obeys the speed zones and follows the manatee regulations, that has come a long way to increasing the numbers,” he said.

Pinto said those regulations led to Northeast Florida’s largest count ever. On Monday and Wednesday, his team counted 217 sea cows — a 15 percent increase from the previous record set in 2012.

Increases statewide have federal wildlife officials considering removing the manatee from the endangered species list. That scares some environmentalists.

But Pinto said taking the animal from endangered to threatened status doesn’t mean those regulations will go away.

“The protections will remain in place whether the species is endangered or downlisted to threatened. So I think it’s a good sign that we’re having an increase in population,” he said.

Pinto encourages anyone boating this summer to look out for the docile, gray animals. 

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.