A red tide algae bloom has killed more than 200 manatees in Florida. The bloom began in January and largely dispersed last month.
While boat propellers used to be the biggest killer of manatees in the region, the red tide of 2013 was the most damaging this year.
Steve Rice, an officer with Florida Fish and Wildlife, has been charged with scouting the Caloosahatchee River on a regular basis to search for dead manatees. Rice has reported more than 20 dead sea cows in just the past few weeks.
The majority of dead manatees have been discovered by kayakers in the river. For Tim Martell, who leads manatee kayak tours, the view has been devastating. Martell explained:
“I think that it’s terrible. Red tide is something that is not good for the ecosystem overall and obviously not for these animals that are dying from it.”
The record number of manatees killed by the algae bloom is not surprising. Last month researchers announced that they expected the death toll to exceed the previous record of 151, which was set in 1996.
Red tide algae blooms are impossible to control or stop. The bloom happens naturally every year along the state’s Gulf Coast. Manatees are affected when toxins from the blooms are absorbed by the sea grass, which is the mammals’ main source of food. The toxins cause manatees to become paralyzed. They then drown because they are not able to swim to the surface for air.
Most of the algae bloom manatee deaths happened along Florida’s lower west coast, near Fort Myers. The algae bloom in that area started last fall and was more severe and long-lasting than normal — a situation that has scientists confused. The algae bloom largely dissipated by mid-March, but the manatees’ food supply was still tainted by toxins.
Because of this, the manatee deaths have continued. The sea mammals can eat up to 100 pounds of sea grass each day, meaning that they can potentially consumer way more toxins than their bodies can handle. Along with manatees, the toxins are also fatal to birds, dolphins, and other animals that consume them. People can also become ill from eating food from red tide areas or coming in contact with the blooms.
While the tide has claimed 241 of Florida’s roughly 5,000 manatees, there is no word on when the death toll numbers will stop rising.
[Image via ShutterStock]