During 2013 a total of 829 manatee deaths were documented by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). This was the highest number recorded since scientists began keeping records in the 1970’s and amounts to 16% of the manatee population in Florida.
A third of these deaths (276) were due to red tide. Manatees are particularly susceptible to red tide because they congregate in the warm offshore waters where the blooms occur. The toxins from the bloom settle onto the sea grass that the manatees eat causing them to become paralyzed. They become disoriented, experience muscle spasms and seizures, have trouble lifting their heads up to breathe and eventually drown. FWC and its partners released fourteen red tide impacted manatees this summer that had been rehabilitated at Tampa’s Lowery Park.
Recently, Cathy Walsh of Mote Marine Laboratory, released a study showing that the manatees who survive exposure to a red tide algal bloom may be left with weakened immune systems. This would make them more vulnerable to diseases and other factors like cold temperatures. The scientist does not yet know how long the lingering effects last. This data may impact how sick manatees are cared for.
FWC has stepped up its efforts to respond to manatees in distress. To report a dead or distressed manatee, call the FWC’s Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-FWCC. Florida residents can purchase a manatee specialty license plate and a manatee decal. The funds from the purchase support manatee research and conservation.