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'It's catastrophic': Why more than 700 dead manatees are just the tip of the iceberg

A tipping point for manatees?
Manatee "Greedy B" released in the St. Johns River
Posted at 6:37 AM, May 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-19 17:53:43-04

TAMPA, Fla. — Manatees have inhabited Florida waters since before modern civilization. Fossil records show their remains date back to prehistoric times. The last 100-years for the gentle giant, affectionately called the sea cow, the most challenging, and we are to blame.

Nearly every single day since Jan. 1, manatees have been found dead in the wild. A majority due to a combination of cold stress syndrome and starvation. The Indian River Lagoon, on the East Coast, now the center of an investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The manatee mortalities meeting the criteria to be declared an Unusual Mortality Event (UME).

But, manatee experts tell ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska there is nothing unusual about how the animals died.

At the time of this publication, manatee deaths are at 724 and on pace to set a dreadful record of more than 1,000 dead manatees in a year.

SAVE THE MANATEE CLUB

"It's catastrophic," Patrick Rose, the Executive Director of Save the Manatee Club, said.

At 70, Rose planned to retire. But the recent uptick in deaths sidelined those plans.

"Manatees depend as vegetarians on that seagrass in the Indian River Lagoon. We've lost more than 90% of the seagrasses. We had more than 70,000 acres of seagrass. We are down to just a fraction of that, and manatees are literally starving to death."

Rose said recent algae blooms in the lagoon killed thousands of acres of seagrass the manatees depend on. The bloom coincided with the colder winter months. So, the manatees were traveling farther in search of food. They, in turn, burned too much of their energy, couldn't stay warm, and began dying in record numbers.

"When we have these catastrophic losses, we are talking about more than a thousand manatees dying this year," Rose said. "And, now they are all adding together this population can't sustain that going forward, so we are past the point of recovery if we don't do something much more serious to get this under control. We've been polluting aquatic systems with our runoff from fertilizers and drainage, from stormwater, our septic systems are failing, we are not treating our wastewater to the standards they need to be, and nature can only absorb so much before it passes a tipping point."

A total of 474 manatees were not necropsied because their bodies were too decomposed. That puts scientists in a tough spot trying to find out exactly what happened.

"So, this is something that needs to be a wake-up call. This is very serious, and it is more than unusual; it is catastrophic," Rose said.

The threatened species already face impossible odds in the wild. They regularly died from watercraft strikes, entanglements from fishing lines or crab traps, red tide, cold stress syndrome, and now starvation from habitat loss. Rose said

"Be ready to rescue many many more manatees and perhaps even feed them if we are going into another bleak situation like we experienced this last winter, but beyond that, we have got to stop the pollution, we have got to stop that nitrogen and phosphorus from making its way into the system that's the only way we are going to control the harmful algal blooms," Rose said. "We really do have a good understanding of why this went wrong. What we don't have is the best understanding of how we are going to fix it."

ZOOTAMPA

ZooTampa at Lowry Park is the only critical care facility for manatees on the Gulf Coast. Their medical pools are near or at capacity. As one manatee is released, another is brought in. To make room for the critically ill, they recently sent two healthy manatees to the Columbus Zoo.

ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska rode with ZooTampa's critical care team to a release in the Ft. Myers area. Paluska watched as manatee keepers kept Darling, an 1100 pound manatee, comfortable for the 2.5-hour ride. Every time Darling shifted her weight, the entire truck rocked back and forth as we traveled down I-75. The team turning her flippers out from under her body when she moved and spraying her down with water to keep her skin from drying out. The dedication it takes to save this species is a bright light in what's turned into an endless battle.

"Wildlife rehab is really heartbreaking," Dr. Lauren Smith, the Director of Animal Health at ZooTampa, said. "You know, we have a really important job here to do. I am fortunate I work with an amazing team, very strong team, but we really focus on the victories and the positive because we must keep the mission up and this work going forward."

Their youngest patient is a baby calf named Calliope. The team bottle feeds her all day and night to get her weight up. Calliope was found all alone the day she was born. Her mother nowhere to be found. Manatees carry their young for 12-months and then take care of them for the first two years of life. The goal is to keep Calliope healthy, get her weight up, and put her in the pools with other manatees. One day, when her time comes, she'll return to the wild.

"These animals are fighters, and we are fortunate they can survive with some supportive care," Smith said.

THE MANATEE STALKER

Some of the rehabilitated manatees that are released back into the wild get outfitted with satellite-linked radio trackers. We went out with Jenn Galbraith, a Research Assistant at Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute.

Twice a week, most often alone, Galbraith tracks and documents the behaviors of orphaned manatees. She is currently tracking four manatees across Tampa Bay.

"This is a whole new world to them coming out here," Galbraith said. "I monitor their behavior to make sure they are adjusting properly. I do passive observation from afar, so what they are physically doing out here. That way, I know if they are eating? Are they in a good habitat? Are they learning appropriate behaviors around humans and boats? Eventually, come winter, do they go back to the warm water site or any warm water site to protect themselves from the cold."

Galbraith already lost two manatees she was tracking this year. One manatee she had just checked on. Two hours later, she lost the signal. Later, the manatee was found dead, too decomposed to perform a necropsy.

"I get a lot of people that tell me I have the most amazing job; they are not wrong, I have the most amazing job. What they don't know is when it's not amazing, which can be a significant period of time," Galbraith said. "You don't turn this off. You don't go home at the end of the day and say, well, that's it. This all comes home with me. I have apps on my phone that tells me where she is; I am the ultimate manatee stalker."

A bad day is not finding a manatee you are tracking or finding them dead. Some days Galbraith wonders if she is having an impact on helping the species. When things get bad, she remembers her good days and keeps going.

"A good day is when you find them they are eating, swimming, they are in good habitat, you don't see people racing over them in boats," Galbraith said. "And, you go home, and you can sleep at night knowing they are okay for that day and tomorrow's a whole new day, and you don't know what's going to happen then."

The summer months will give researchers a lot of information about where the manatee named Opal is tracking.

"The test is now over the summer they are going to expand their travels will they find their way back will they remember to go back will they find someplace else we didn't know about which is sometimes cool too," Galbraith said.

HEALTH OF TAMPA BAY

The release of pollutants from Piney Point has many scientists concerned about the health of Tampa Bay. Many are wondering if we could become the new Indian River Lagoon.

"I don't think anyone would've predicted how easy things could flip and so here in Tampa Bay, we are fortunate in that Tampa Bay has a big mouth and has a lot more flushing," Dr. James "Buddy" Powell, the Executive Director of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute said.

"I don't think it's too far outside the realm of possibilities that at some point in the future if we don't pay attention and do the things that need to be done, we could see Tampa Bay spiraling down."

According to Maya Burke, the Tampa Bay Estuary Program Assistant Director, "as a whole Tampa Bay lost approximately 5,400 acres of seagrass between 2018 and 2020. This equates to a 13% loss. Most of that loss (approximately 3,200 acres) occurred in a northwestern portion of the bay known as Old Tampa Bay. Even though the losses put the region below recovery goals, Tampa Bay still supports more than 35,00 acres of seagrass."

Burke said in the Tampa Bay area, most manatee deaths result from collisions with watercraft.

"Harmful algal blooms are the main factor behind Old Tampa Bay's water quality issues over the past six-plus years. The declining seagrass coverage in Old Tampa Bay tracks with less light availability (shading) is a result of recurring summertime blooms of another type of algae- Pyrodinium bahamense," Burke said.

In all other portions of Tampa Bay, Burke said, "there is sufficient water clarity to allow sunlight to penetrate to the bay bottom and support the growth of underwater seagrasses."

Compare that to Indian River Lagoon, where Teresa Holifield Monson the Public Communications Coordinator for the St. Johns River Water Management District said there was a change in the amount of seagrass in any given patch, such as a square meter. The drop in seagrass cover since 2009 has been approximately 89%."

NEXT WINTER AND BEYOND

Rose said there are an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 manatees in the wild. But, he believes the overall numbers are closer to between 7,500 and 8,000.

"It's not a big cushion. We could lose more than a thousand manatees this year alone, and we could be facing next winter being worse than this winter," Rose said. "Be ready to rescue many many more manatees and perhaps even feed them if we are going into another bleak situation like we experienced this last winter, but beyond that, we have got to stop the pollution, we have got to stop that nitrogen and phosphorus from making its way into the system that's the only way we are going to control the harmful algal blooms. You have algal blooms that shade out the sea great the food that manatees rely on and other species they collapse, and this is a tipping point that's been past, and they are going to keep declining."

In the next decade, Rose said fossil fuel power plants like the one operated by TECO at Apollo Beach would go offline. The human-made hot water outflows from the plant will be gone taking away a warm water sanctuary for manatees in the winter.

If more natural springs aren't restored and clear pathways to better environments in the next decade, he predicts catastrophic losses for the manatee population.

"If we don't have a plan to take care of those manatees during the cold winters without that artificial warm, we'll lose thousands and thousands of manatees," Rose said.

It feels like the manatees are up against unthinkable odds. But everyone I interviewed for this report feels confident we can turn the tide of war against the manatees and bring the species back to their glory as a thriving, healthy, and protected animal that so many people love.