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The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission conducted an annual winter survey, Jan. 28 to Feb. 2, 2019. This is referred to as the synoptic survey and it is conducted following cold weather in years that meet our criteria.

The synoptic survey method is different from the abundance survey method. The abundance survey provides us with a manatee population estimate, the latest update was just announced in December 2019. The synoptic survey provides information about manatee distribution when the population is gathering in large groups at warm-water sites such as power plants and natural springs during the coldest part of winter. The synoptic results are minimum counts of animals in the survey areas during the overflight. However, results are highly impacted by weather and environmental conditions.

Warm-water is important because Florida manatees are affected by cold water temperatures. Prolonged exposure to water temperatures below 68 degrees can cause a condition called manatee cold-stress syndrome, which can result in death. Wildlife managers deem the loss of warm-water habitat as one of the most significant long-term threats to the manatee population. Changes in how power plants operate in the future and the tendency for manatees to return to those locations every year will continue to be an important issue in manatee conservation. The FWC winter synoptic survey helps to provide information to aid in the development of long-term plans for manatee conservation.

Preliminary results from the 2019 synoptic survey show that the highest counts consistently occur in areas with the greatest amount of warm-water habitat from power plants and natural springs such as Tampa Bay (>1000), Lee County (>900) and the Crystal and Homosassa River areas (>800). Survey partners also counted over 500 manatees at Blue Spring in the St. Johns River Region of Volusia County. Smaller springs in that region, such as Salt Spring and Silver Glen Spring, showed steady use as well. Although poor weather on the East Coast hampered counting in some areas, warm-water aggregations sites in Broward and Brevard County had significant numbers of manatees. The count for the 2019 synoptic survey can be found in the Synoptic Survey Overview article. Final and verified synoptic survey information is mapped and available online. The FWC wishes to thank the many partners that helped to implement the 2019 synoptic survey including Broward County, Florida DEP, IHA Environmental Services, Jacksonville University, KSC Ecological Program, Miami-Dade County, Mote Marine Laboratory, The National Park Service, Save the Manatee Club, Sea2Shore Alliance, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and volunteers.