Florida's gentle giants are facing a crisis. A powerful red tide bloom is wiping out manatee populations in Sarasota, Charlotte, and Lee counties.
The statistics are staggering: 174 manatees have already been killed this year from red tide-related illness.
"There's red tide blooms every couple of years, but this is definitely a bigger one than what we usually see," the Florida Aquarium's Trevor Gerlach said Monday.
Red tide is an algae bloom that typically comes in waves that last a few weeks. This bloom has festered in Southwest Florida waters since September. It can poison and then paralyze manatees that get caught in the mix.
"They have an inability to get to the surface to take breaths, and so therefore they have the propensity to drown," Gerlach explained.
Florida Fish & Wildlife experts say they haven't seen a bloom this bad since 1996, when 151 manatees died from red tide-related illness. The current bloom has already broken that record, and experts expect the issue to drag on for weeks, over even months.
"The toxins either accumulate within the sea grass or are found on organisms that live on the sea grass. So as the manatees continue to feed, even after the bloom is gone, those toxins are still in the sea grasses," Gerlach continued.
Manatees are already endangered and FWC says this could have devastating effects on their future in Florida. Vets say there's little they can do to prevent sea cows from geting sick, but they can treat them if they're located quickly after they get sick.
About a dozen manatees are currently being treated at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo, where vets keep their heads above water and medicate them.
"Usually within 24 hours of getting them into fresh water, not exposed to the bloom, they will start to normalize. They'll start feeding, they'll start coming to the surface to breathe," Gerlach said.
Florida Fish & Wildlife is asking for the public's help in located manatees that are sick from red tide toxins. If you notice a manatee floating at the surface of the water for an extended period of time with very little movement, you're asked to call FWC's Manatee tip line at: 1-888-404-FWCC.
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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