The southwest coast of Florida from Sarasota to Lee County has been experiencing one of its worst red tide blooms since 2005. Now, in addition to the fish kills that have been washing up on its shores, manatees have become the latest victims with more poisoned by red tide than in any year on record.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced on March 11th, that 174 manatees are suspected to have died from red tide poisoning so far in 2013. The previous record was 151 in 1996. The area around Fort Myers in Lee County has been hard hit, with 151 deaths. Most of the other deaths were in Charlotte and Sarasota Counties.
Manatees are particularly susceptible, 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. The grass beds will likely retain their poisonous coating for some time after the bloom dies down.
Many of the rescued manatees are recovering at a manatee rehab hospital at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo. The animals are so sick that zookeepers have to stand in a water tank with them and hold their heads up so they can breathe.
Signs that a manatee has been poisoned include a lack of coordination and stability in the water, muscle twitches, seizures, difficulty lifting its head to breathe, erratic swimming and floating upside down. Scientists say the key to saving the manatees is in a phone call. If you see a manatee in distress call 1-888-404-3922, the FWC’s Wildlife Alert Hotline.