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Manatees dying in record numbers due to red tide

2:16 PM, Mar 11, 2013   |    comments
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (WTSP) -- You'll find two of the newest victims of a problem experts call "catastrophic" inside the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Marine Mammal Pathobiology Laboratory.

"These manatees die quickly," says FWC Veterinarian Martine DeWit. "It goes really quickly, so they basically die from shock."

DeWit has made manatees her mission. She could tell you pretty much anything about them. She can also tell you there's never been a red tide bloom this deadly.

Last Monday alone, FWC found 16 manatees dead from the red tide bloom throughout Sarasota, Charlotte, Lee, and Collier counties. Eleven more were discovered on Tuesday, five on Wednesday, and seven on Thursday. That total of 39 manatees found dead in just four days is more than the total red tide-related deaths in 2012 combined.

"We think that this week we surpassed the yearly record, which was set in 1996," DeWit says.

That record was 151 in one year. As of Thursday, the count was at 149, with reports still coming in.

Red tide first showed up late last fall. It's a harmful algal bloom, producing toxins that can cover seagrass and kill manatees when they eat it. The lab can determine whether a manatee died from red tide consumption by measuring the toxin that's seeped into a manatee's tissue.

"It's a very large bloom that persisted through the winter and there are lots of manatees in the same area," DeWit says. "They all aggregated to the warm-water side, and that put them in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Twelve of the manatees were rescued just in time. The Lowry Park Zoo is now caring for them. That's what inspires DeWit, despite the grim images, to fight on.

"We want to preserve manatees for the future of Florida, for future generations to enjoy manatees the way we are enjoying them right now," she says.

Signs that a manatee has been poisoned include erratic swimming and floating upside down. Many times, the key to them being saved is a phone call. If you see a manatee in distress, call 1-888-404-3922. FWC biologists monitor the hotline 24/7.


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