NAPLES — When a young manatee washed up on a Marco Island beach this week, it was the latest victim of the devastating effects of red tide hitting Southwest Florida waters.
Two days earlier, four hefty carcasses were found in Lee County, victims of the red tide bloom that arrived in September.
The deadly algae has killed 184 manatees this year, including four in Collier County, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials. The first Collier sea cow was found Feb. 9 in Rookery Bay, another a week later, floating in Henderson Creek, and another was recovered in Sanctuary Sound off Marco Island on March 4. One of those found in Lee County was in Ten Mile Canal in the Estero area.
It’s the highest number of red-tide-related deaths in a single calendar year since 151 died in 1996, when the state began keeping records. Last year, 33 died from the effects of red tide, while most were hit by boats or died from the cold snap. The majority usually die after being hit by watercraft.
Roughly 300 have died so far this year of various causes.
Manatees are an endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act and Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act. As a result, the FWC and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are asking residents to watch for signs that a manatee has been affected by red tide, including a lack of coordination and stability, muscle twitches, seizures or difficulty lifting its head to breathe.
“They become paralyzed and it affects their nervous systems,” said Virginia Edmonds, animal caregiver of Florida mammals at Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, which treated 11 sickened by red tide this week. “They can’t take a breath and they end up drowning.
“When it comes to manatees and red tide, what happens is they ingest it,” she said, noting that it’s in the sea grass and they begin twitching as the toxins take effect. “There’s so much red tide out there right now.”
FWC boats are patrolling the shores and officers are urging the public to call the FWC’s Wildlife Alert Hotline, 888-404-FWCC — *FWC or #FWC on cellphones — if they spot a manatee in distress. The highest concentration of the bloom this week is alongshore in Charlotte County and offshore in Lee.
Edmonds recommends residents first try to save the manatee before calling.
“If people do find them, they should first lift their head out of water so they can take a breath. If they wait to call first, they could die,” she said.
With help from citizens and environmentalists, the FWC and its partners rescued 12 manatees this year, including one injured by a boat. They ranged from 800 pounds to 904 pounds, but they can weigh more than 1,000 pounds and are actually lean, intelligent mammals that emit sounds under water.
On Wednesday, it was too late for the young manatee found between Residents’ Beach and Crescent Beach on Marco Island.
FWC biologists Mike Sommers and Kelly Roberts slowly rolled it along the sand to the water, then walked and swam to an FWC law enforcement boat, where they tied its body to a long rope on the boat’s stern.
As the boat headed into the Gulf, the manatee lay on its back, its stiffened flippers in the air. Its destination was the Marine Mammal Pathobiology Laboratory in St. Petersburg, where tests determine the cause of death.
“Florida Fish and Wildlife law enforcement has been out patrolling the area on a day-to-day basis,” FWC spokesman Kevin Baxter said. “Most of them tend to be in the water still — and largely in the Fort Myers area.”
The carcasses are secured at boat ramps by FWC law officers, lab staff or good Samaritans, under the staff’s guidance. Staff members then load them onto a flatbed trailer and head to the lab, which, like the zoo, rehabilitates rescued mammals.
Lab staff members perform necropsies to determine cause of death. That information helps environmental officials formulate protection plans, land development, boating regulations and other public policies that affect marine mammals.
State and federal scientists are collecting and analyzing data to better understand long-term impacts of the ongoing red tide on the manatee population and effects of other events, including extreme cold snaps, such as the one that killed a record number in 2010 — 282, double the five-year average from Jan. 1 through Dec. 5.
Some recover by the time they arrive at the zoo, possibly due to the lengthy journey on cushioned mats. Staffers keep them moist to prevent overheating.
“They defecate, urinate, just like when you have food poisoning. If they’re in transport, they may pass it,” Edmonds said. “They come in at different stages.”
Manatees could drown in two inches of water, so workers keep them buoyant because they open their nostrils under water.
“Their lungs are on their backs. They are not deep divers,” she said, adding that whales and dolphins have lungs on their chests like humans.
Workers place the manatee into a life vest, slipping its flippers through the holes. Then they put a long, foam swim “noodle” under its head, propping it up in 1½ feet of water.
“With one, within 15 minutes of being placed in the jacket, he woke up,” Edmonds said. “The toxin may have worked its way out. We think it depends on the manatee and its exposure to it.”
Once the toxin gets out of their system, they become aware and start flapping, she said, adding, “Their eyes are flared while paralyzed, so they may be aware of what’s going on.”
Once they’re in shape, they’re released, adhering to their long migration patterns. Many are adults and can live more than 60 years, so they’re honed in to where they’re from.
Decades of conservation efforts have led to population increases. Population growth and state conservation measures led FWC to work on a proposed rule to reclassify them from endangered to threatened, reflecting their improved status.