An unprecedented 184 manatees have been killed in Gulf of Mexico waters off southwest Florida so far this year due to toxic red tide blooms, surpassing the previous record of 151 manatee deaths from red tide in 1996. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), nearly 10 manatees were dying per day; a number that is now on the decline.
“The toxin paralyzes the manatee so it is not able to take a breathe, to come to the surface, and they basically drown,” said Martine DeWit, a veterinarian with FWC’s marine mammal pathology laboratory. “This is probably going to be the worst die-off in history.”
Florida’s red tide bloom has impacted about 100 miles of the southwest coast, extending along the shores of Sarasota County south through Lee County. Many of the fallen manatees have been found near the Florida Power and Light plant on Lee County’s Caloosahatchee River, a well-known hot spot for manatees to gather for warmth during the winter months. Lee County’s red tide victims account for 86.8% of southwest Florida’s total manatee deaths.
“What we think is happening is that we’ve had this bloom around long enough that the toxins have accumulated on the seagrasses where the manatees are feeding,” said Kevin Baxter, spokesperson for the FWC.
Twelve rescued manatees have been taken to Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo for emergency medical care, where zookeepers alternate three-hour shifts holding their heads out of tank water so they can breathe. One manatee brought in had to have its head held above water for 29 hours before it was able to begin breathing on its own.
“They’re basically paralyzed and they’re comatose,” said Virginia Edmonds, Lowry’s animal care manager for Florida mammals. “They could drown in two inches of water.”
A pressing upcoming issue will be deciding where to release the recovered manatees, since returning them to the wild will just re-expose them to the toxic red tide bloom. “Right now, we just have full pools,” Edmonds said. SeaWorld has taken two rescued manatees and Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is projected to take four. But regardless of where they eventually go, “we’ll just keep taking them in,” Edmonds adds. “We want to save as many as we can.”