PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — More manatees have died in the first six months of this year than any other year in Florida’s history. FWC says 841 sea cows have died since January 1.
With red tide concerns growing, scientists and marine biologists worry more manatees could be in danger. Pinellas County leaders say the toxic bloom in Tampa Bay is killing off seagrass at an alarming rate, which manatees need to survive.
In response, Clearwater Marine Aquarium is stepping up to help save the beloved animals.
“I’ve never seen it this bad. I’ve been studying manatees for over 50 years,” explained Dr. James Buddy Powell, the Executive Director of CMA’s Research Institute.
Powell says manatees are up against a “perfect storm,” water pollution, the pandemic pushing more people towards boating and diminishing seagrass.
“We’ve had hundreds of manatees die of starvation,” he lamented.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium is now turning to a pool facility at Fred Howard Park to serve as a rehabilitation site for manatees.
Within a few months, CMA hopes to help six manatees at a time at the facility in Tarpon Springs using an existing 40-foot pool and two smaller individual pools for critically injured animals.
The rehab facility was built in 2019 and has been used to help injured dolphins and a pair of pilot whales that became stranded on Redington Beach two years ago.
CMA leaders hope to study the manatees, even after they’re released back into the wild, will help marine biologists find new ways to protect them.
“It’s scary particularly if this is going to be a reoccurring event,” Powell added.
The goal is to add storage space, more electricity and other upgrades to the facility to get it up and running by December or January, when the manatees seek out warmer water and are more in danger of being hit by boats or starving from a lack of seagrass.
Dr. Shelly Marquardt, a veterinarian with CMA, says the upgrades are on the fast track to help manatees at a critical time.
“While they’re listed as threatened at this point, a significant loss to this population really could put them back into that endangered category. That’s really something we are trying to prevent,” she said.
Boating accidents used to be the main source of manatee deaths. So far, 63 have been killed by boat strikes in Florida in 2021. Yet, persistent algal blooms are adding another problem. The blooms can impact the clarity of the water which leads to less sunlight reaching the seagrass and causing the underwater plants to die off.
Some environmentalists are pushing for manatee to be reclassified as endangered. Manatees were reclassified as threatened in 2017. It’s estimated that 6,300 manatees currently live in Florida waters.
The upgraded Tarpon Springs rehabilitation facility for manatees will not be open to the public, but in the future, CMA hopes to be able to rehab the sea cows at their aquarium in Clearwater, as well.