TARPON SPRINGS — Clearwater Marine Aquarium already had plans to build a manatee rehab center, but Red Tide and the alarming number of manatee deaths on Florida’s east coast made the need more urgent, officials said in a press conference Wednesday.
Standing in front of a 75,000-gallon pool facility that was opened in 2019 at Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs to nurture injured dolphins and famously a strand of pilot whales that beached themselves, CMA officials said they feel an urgent need to refurbish the pools there by this winter to rehabilitate distressed manatees.
Dr. James Powell, executive director of CMA, said a “perfect storm” of threats to manatees have already shattered records for manatee deaths in just the first six months of this year.
“During the pandemic, people bought a lot of boats and we need to slow them down,” Powell said. He then mentioned the unusual number of manatees found dead on Florida’s east coast, where manatees are dying due to lack of seagrass in the Indian River Lagoon.
“And now in our own back yard we have Red Tide and the toxins from that, which threaten the manatees.”
CMA officials said it could take up to $2 million to upgrade the facility to be able to house six manatees at a time in the big pool, which measures 40 feet across and is 8 feet deep.
It will require a stronger filtration system “since manatees eat a lot,” said animal care director Kelly Martin. They will also upgrade two smaller 20-foot pools for the most severely injured manatees, such as those hurt by boat strikes, she said.
The number of Florida manatee deaths in the first half of 2021 is well more than double the state’s five-year average for the same time period. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reports 850 manatees have died through July 20, topping the previous record of 830 deaths that were recorded in all of 2013.
“I’ve never seen it this bad after 50 years of study,” Powell said. Advocates thought progress was made when the manatee was upgraded from an “endangered” species to merely a “threatened” species.
“But we didn’t take the threats away,” Powell said.
If Florida can’t figure out a way to improve its water quality so that the seagrasses can thrive and keep away threats like Red Tide, Powell said the manatee could end up back on the endangered species list.
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CMA hopes to have the manatee rehab upgrades in place by December or January, when the animals will seek out warmer water. That’s when officials see a spike in boat strikes and manatees can starve from a lack of seagrass.
In the meantime, CMA’s animal care workers are assisting the other five permitted acute care facilities for manatees in the state, including ZooTampa and SeaWorld Orlando. These locations treat sick, injured or orphaned Florida manatees.
Unlike the aquarium, this manatee center will not be on view for public display. The pools that will be set up at Fred Howard Park will be there to nurture the animals and release them back into the wild.
More to know
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium all have hotlines set up to report a sick or dead dolphin, manatee or sea turtle:
· The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s hotline is 727-404-3922 and 888-404-FWCC 1-888-404-3922.
· The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s hotline is 866-755-6622.
· Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s hotline is 727-441-1790.