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Red tide returns as manatee deaths mount

Mark Parker



Manatees congregate outside of Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River, about 90 miles north of St. Petersburg. Photo by Mark Parker.

For the past few weeks, environmental officials have monitored toxic algal blooms just south of Tampa Bay – bad news for a state that has lost 24% of its manatee population.

Since around Oct. 20, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has observed high concentrations of Karenia brevis, the organism that causes red tide, from inshore and offshore Lee County to Sarasota County. Even worse, the harmful algae can kill seagrass, which manatees need to survive.

The state continues to lose a “staggering” number of manatees, mostly due to starvation resulting from a loss of coastal seagrass beds and poor water quality. J. P. Brooker, the St. Petersburg-based Director of Florida Conservancy for the Ocean Conservancy, said fellow researchers and scientists were on “high alert” for a red tide outbreak after one followed Hurricane Irma in 2018.

“So, a big event like Hurricane Ian and a red tide event coming on the heels of that spells bad news for manatees on the west coast,” added Brooker. 

Many local environmental stakeholders are also wary of the harmful algal blooms as St. Petersburg endured its worst red tide outbreak in 50 years last summer. At the time, Dr. Kate Hubbard, a research scientist with the FWC, explained that the toxic bloom also began off the coast of Ft. Myers before winds and tides pushed it north, turning Tampa Bay into a marine graveyard.

City workers pull a bloated goliath grouper from a St. Petersburg waterway during the 2021 red tide outbreak. Workers estimated the fish weighed around 400 pounds. Photo by Mark Parker.

Speaking to the Catalyst Tuesday – the first day of Manatee Awareness Month – Brooker said it is probably too early to discern whether this outbreak will make it into Tampa Bay, as that depends on the water’s salinity, local rainfall and several other factors.

However, he said the algal blooms would “certainly” get close, as high concentrations have already made it to Sarasota. Brooker added that it would not take much for the outbreak to creep into Manatee County.

“If you look at the patterns from earlier years,” said Brooker. “Big events that happen to the south of us can get very big. I think anything is possible at this point.”

He also relayed that there is a “strong possibility” a significant red tide outbreak could exacerbate another record year for manatee deaths. Brooker explained that red tide could “definitely” kill seagrass beds.

Florida officials reported 1,101 manatee deaths last year, the most in recorded history. The loss of coastal seagrass, said Brooker, caused the recent unusual mortality event. Despite efforts to protect their food source and supplement it with thousands of heads of lettuce, another 719 perished this year.

While Brooker noted most manatee deaths occurred on the east coast, he said, “it won’t take much seagrass loss on the Southwest Florida Coast or in Tampa Bay to see those impacts over here.”

Since December 2020, Florida lost over 1,800 manatees, relayed Brooker. He called that a staggering figure – accounting for 24% of the total population – mostly due to water quality-induced starvation.

“It’s mouth-dropping; it’s just terrible,” said Brooker. “We should all be on high alert, you know, sounding the alarm bells. Because it’s scary.”

Nov. 1 marked the start of Manatee Awareness Month. File photo.

Harmful nutrients in runoff and poor water quality contribute to red tide outbreaks. Brooker hopes Florida’s new Senate President and Speaker of the House will address the statewide problem in the next legislative session.

He explained that state leadership implemented “really good” algal bloom and red tide task forces but has yet to adopt their recommendations. Lawmakers, added Brooker, have all the tools they need to reduce the amounts of harmful nutrients draining into Florida’s waters and stop the seagrass die-off that ultimately starves sea cows.

“I want to grab people by the collar now and say, ‘listen up!'” he said. “One in four manatees lost forever until we do something to bring them back.”

While Florida is on pace for its second-deadliest year for manatees, Brooker said the slight decrease is due to an emergency initiative to feed them lettuce. The FWC began the stopgap measure last year to help mitigate rampant starvation.

The program was controversial, as the animals could become dependent on the food source and never leave that area, and for its potential ecological impacts. However, Brooker believes it was the right move in a dire situation. He said the FWC might have no choice but to reimplement the program this winter.

“That’s like a tourniquet in the field solution,” said Brooker. “We need durable fixes to our water quality, and feeding the manatees doesn’t address the real problems.”




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