Nov 1, 2022 - News

Hurricane Ian's next target: Florida manatees

 A manatee swims in the Homosassa River in October.

A manatee swims in the Homosassa River in October after Homosassa River Restoration Project planted seagrass to help restore the feeding ground for the mammals. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Red tide is back, possibly fueled by Hurricane Ian's nutrient churn, and it's stirring even more concern about imperiled Florida manatees this winter.

Driving the news: The microscopic algae Karenia brevis, the organism that causes red tide, have recently started showing up in samples collected by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, from Sarasota to Lee counties.

Why it matters: Red tide can kill the coastal seagrasses manatees desperately need to survive the winter months.

  • State biologists are still trying to end an unusual mortality event that started in December 2020 among manatees in the Indian River Lagoon, which researchers have blamed on starvation due to a lack of seagrass. It contributed to a record 1,101 manatee deaths reported in Florida waters last year.

Details: Nine samples collected offshore of Sarasota County last week showed some concentrations of Karenia brevis.

  • So did 19 samples from Charlotte County and 25 samples from Lee County, farther south.
  • No fish kills were reported, but human respiratory issues caused by the red tide were reported in Sarasota County.

The latest: Today marks the first day of Manatee Awareness Month, meant to encourage boaters to slow down and wear polarized glasses to avoid hitting manatees.

  • 719 dead manatees have been reported in Florida waters so far this year.

What they're saying: "Florida is at a crossroads, with a record number of manatees dying," Jon Paul Brooker, Ocean Conservancy's director of Florida conservation, said in an emailed statement.

  • "We must keep this issue at the forefront, so leaders statewide will invest in solutions to improve water quality β€” protecting natural habitats to save our beloved manatees."
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