Manatee Deaths Break Record in Florida; 'Red Tide' and Other Mysterious Ailment Blamed

By Rhonda J. Miller on December 30, 2013 9:41 AM EST

Manatee Deaths Break Record In Florida
More than 800 manatees died in Florida during the past year, with toxic algae blooms causing 'Red Tide' a main factor in Gulf of Mexico deaths and a second more mysterious cause contributing to manatee deaths in the Indian River Lagoon on the Sunshine State's Atlantic Coast. (Photo: Vimeo / Rhonda J. Miller)

More than 800 manatees have died in Florida waters during the past year, breaking the record for most annual deaths of the animals, at least since data began being kept in the 1970s.The Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg reported 803 manatee deaths as of Dec. 13 — about 16 percent of the total 5,000 manatees in the state, the Tampa Bay Times reported. The previous record of manatee deaths was 766 in 2010 when cold weather was a major factor, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission spokesman Kevin Baxter, Business World reported. 

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Of the 803 deaths, 173 were females of breeding age, Martine DeWit of the research institute's Marine Mammal Pathology Laboratory  told the Tampa Bay Times. "It must have an impact to lose the important breeding females," DeWit said about the future of the species, who are sometimes referred to as "sea cows." The 803 female manatee deaths in 2013 compares to 392 deaths in 2012, according to data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.

The main cause of the deaths was a massive bloom of Red Tide algae along the state's southwestern coast in the Gulf of Mexico, which caused 276 deaths early in the year. Even though Red Tide has been responsible for manatee deaths for a long time, 2013 was the worst year for deaths from that cause ever recorded. The other cause for the high death count is a second, mysterious aliment that killed many manatees in the Indian River Lagoon on Florida's Atlantic Coast. To add to the environmental concerns, a large number of dolphins and pelicans have also died in the Indian River Lagoon, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Scientists are not certain if the deaths of the different species are related.

The Red Tide is when naturally-occurring algae grows out of control for unknown reasons and creates toxins deadly to fish, sea turtles, birds, and marine mammals. The algae settles on sea grasses the manatees eat and affects their nervous system, eventually causing them to drown, Baxter told Business World.It also turns the water red, hence the name The algae could also be a factor contributing to the manatee deaths in the Indian River Lagoon, Baxter said. Water in parts of the lagoon had become clouded due to algae bloom blocking out sunlight and inhibiting the growth of sea grass — forcing the manatee to find other food sources, which could be a factor in the deaths.

The West Indian manatee common in Florida is related the African and Amazon species and to the dugong of Australia. The manatee grows to at least 10 feet and can weigh more than 1,000 pounds. 

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