It could be a record for Florida. According to state officials, a record number of manatees are being killed by red tide.
“This is probably going to be the worst die-off in history,” said Martine Dewit, a veterinarian with Florida’s marine mammal pathology laboratory.
Red tide, comprised of harmful algae blooms that contain toxins deadly to marine life, cause seawater to turn a deep reddish color. The type that blooms in the eastern Gulf of Mexico appear annually, prompting local warnings for swimmers.
Manatees, also known as “sea cows” are marine mammals with paddle-like flippers. The West Indian manatee, Trichchecus manatus, lives in the Gulf of Mexico and migrates into Florida’s rivers. They are vegetarians, can measure up to 13 ft long and weigh as much as 1300 lbs.The Red Tide toxin causes manatees to drown by affecting their nervous systems.
According to Dewit, several factors have caused the creatures to swim into harm’s way this year.
“It’s a very large bloom that persisted through the winter and there are lots of manatees in the same area,” she said. “They all aggregated to the warm-water side, and that put them in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The previous record for manatee deaths caused by red tide was set in 1996, when 151 were killed. As of Friday, the number was 149 for the year. Some ailing manatees have been rescued — eleven in all — and taken to Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo for treatment.
Speaking Friday, Florida officials said the manatees become paralyzed by red tide, which leads them to drown.
“[The manatees are] basically paralyzed and they’re comatose,” said Virginia Edmonds, the zoo’s animal care manager for Florida mammals. “They could drown in 2 inches of water.”
Because manatees poisoned by red tide tend to have seizures, putting them at risk for drowning, it is impractical to use flotation devices to keep the animals’ heads aloft, according to zoo spokesperson Rachel Nelson. The result is a number of zoo officials forced to hold the heads of the massive beasts above water.
“So each staffer takes a three-hour shift holding the manatees’ heads up,” she said.
A problem facing zookeepers is what to do with the manatees once they have recovered, said Pat Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club. Releasing them back into the wild where they would re-exposed them to red tide. State officials say they are working on finding an alternative, although it remains unclear which regional areas have room for the manatees.
“We’re making arrangements to move them to other places and stabilize them and keep them there until the Red Tide goes away,” Rose said.
Regardless, Florida officials say they are determined to help the distressed manatees.
“We’ll just keep taking them in,” she said, “We want to save as many as we can.”