Manatees congregate at Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River, Florida

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Annual survey spots a record number of manatees in Florida's waters

This comes amid proposed move to remove manatees from endangered species status

CNN  — 

There’s some good news out of Florida: For the third straight year, spotters counted more than 6,000 manatees navigating Florida’s waters.

An aerial survey ending earlier this month had a preliminary total of 6,620 creatures, compared to 6,250 in 2016 and 6,063 the year before. That’s a far cry from the estimated 1,267 manatees seen in 1991.

The manatees, of course, have to be seen to be counted and their exact numbers are unknown. But this year’s 15 observers were helped by warm, sunny weather and good visibility, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conversation Commission said Monday.

“The relatively high counts we have seen for the past three years underscore the importance of warm water habitat to manatees in Florida,” said Gil McRae, head of the state’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. The survey counted 3,488 of the lovable sea cows on the state’s east coast and 3,132 along the west coast.

McRae, in the statement, said successful conservation involves many organizations.

Debate over endangered species status

The annual count comes as the US Fish and Wildlife Service mulls a final decision on reclassifying the West Indian manatee from endangered to threatened.

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Manatees set to lose endangered status
01:28 - Source: WSVN

The agency early last year proposed making the change to a less serious status because of “significant improvements” in the manatee population and habitat conditions. The West Indian manatee includes the Florida manatee.

“The manatee’s recovery is incredibly encouraging and a great testament to the conservation actions of many,” Cindy Dohner, the Southeast regional director for US Fish and Wildlife, said at the time. “Today’s proposal is not only about recognizing this progress, but it’s also about recommitting ourselves to ensuring the manatee’s long-term success and recovery.”

A public comment period ended in April 2016.

The Pacific Legal Foundation, a libertarian-leaning watchdog and property rights group, has pushed for the federal government to formally adopt the change, saying it should follow the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.

The foundation has represented residents who formed the organization Save Crystal River. Christina Martin, an attorney for the foundation, said Save Crystal River is concerned the federal government “might adopt more and more restrictions that would be harmful to their community.”

Martin said the agency should “focus on the species most in need of being saved from going extinct.”

Last month, the foundation threatened legal action. Martin said she hopes the USFWS will formally adopt the rule change in the next month. “I am hopeful they will have something and we don’t have to sue.”

Some in the state have questioned the effectiveness of boating speed zones meant to protect the species.

The Save the Manatee Club says at least 98 manatees were killed by watercraft in 2016. The organization also has cited the vulnerability of the animals to cold weather and red tide, a harmful algal bloom.

“The threat is still out there, and it’s not going away,” Katie Tripp, director of science and conservation for the club, said last year. “You don’t celebrate when you’re not done with the game. There’s a lot more work to be done to safeguard the habitat, to get manatees removed from the Endangered Species Act altogether.”

The act defines an endangered species as one currently in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. The designation came with federal restrictions on such things as boat speed and waterfront development that are credited with protecting the species and reversing its decline.

A threatened species is one that is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.

The manatee remains protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

CNN reached out late Monday to the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Save the Manatee Club for comment.

CNN’s Emanuella Grinberg and John Couwels contributed to this report.