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Trash crowds about a dozen manatees in Hillsborough River

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Posted at 6:50 PM, Feb 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-15 18:50:38-05

There’s yet another threat that puts the Florida manatee in a vulnerable position — trash.

There were more than 1,100 reported manatee deaths in the state last year. A significant number of those deaths were boat strikes, but we also know manatees were starving to death and poor water quality is a big reason.

“Look at them!!!,” said an onlooker, as she discovered manatees just below the Nebraska Avenue Bridge in Sulphur Springs Tuesday.

At least 12 manatees could be seen huddled together in the Hillsborough River to stay warm. But Rod Hatch, a man who lives nearby, wants people to look a little closer.

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They’re laying on litter at the bottom of the river right now, there’s a spring right there,” he said.

A fellow neighbor and friend, Daisy Jones, showed up to check on the sea cows. She started a movement among neighbors to keep watch over them and do what they can to get the city’s attention in order to better protect them.

That’s because garbage is all around and what ABC Action News saw isn’t even the worst of it.

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“I posted some pictures up four nights ago of just all the litter in this whole lot, it was strewn with litter and it motivated somebody to come out and pick up all the litter,” Hatch said. “He picked up six garbage bags full of litter out here. I know his first name is Ed. So Ed, thank you out there!”

Hatch knows within a few days the trash will be back.

“They could be mistaken for food and eating it and then not surviving,” said Ronald Giovannelli, who also lives nearby.

He visits this lot five times a week just to keep up with the manatees. He sees the trash too.

“I’ve been coming here for a long time and I’ve always dreamed about this being a piece of public land. There’s so little public land along the river but every time something comes up like this we in government should snatch it up,” he said. "That way, the city can help protect them."

Hatch reached out to Tampa City Council as well as the Mayor's office. He’d like to see increased littering fines.

“It’s all perception,” he said. If you’re driving on the street in a work zone and you see work zone fines doubled, it makes you think twice.”

Enforcement in Tampa is pretty low. Hatch pulled the numbers and gave them to us. According to Tampa police records, only 164 citations for trash under 15 pounds have been handed out in six years.

When asked if that’s enough, Hatch replied, “No, no.”

But, he said there are other solutions, like a specific type of netting that traps trash before it moves into a waterway — it's called a watergoat.

“A gentleman up here on the river his name is Joe he’s very proactive with river as well, he put some watergoats up but the city of Tampa made them take it down because there’s nobody to maintain them,” said Hatch.

But, Giovannelli likes the idea.

“You don’t have to maybe put it along the entire river, but an area like this it would make the investment worthwhile,” he said.

Hatch mentioned the city approving a garbage boat designed to collect trash last year. We reached out to Mayor Jane Castor and she said, “We need to declare war on litter in Tampa -on or roads, waterways, and everywhere-and all of us should pitch in. The City of Tampa in May should have a new trash boat ready to launch which is specifically designed to help remove trash from our waterways.”

We also reached out to Councilman Guido Maniscalco as well as FWC and are waiting to hear back.