ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Red tide is the known or suspected cause of more manatee deaths in Pinellas County over the past month than anywhere else in Florida, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission records.

“We never want to set a record with number of manatee deaths,” said Andy Garrett, FWC manatee rescue coordinator. “We’re hoping it subsides.”

According to FWC records, 10 manatees have been killed by red tide in Pinellas County waters from September 29 through October 19.

During that same time frame, only two other manatees statewide have been killed by red tide. Both of those cases were in Lee County.

“Right now we’re seeing the most active county as being Pinellas,” Garrett said. “It’s been kind of widespread for the past year. Certainly the southern counties had a bigger issue during the summer, but now it seems like Pinellas is the one.”

Knowing the signs

FWC has collected most of the Pinellas manatee carcasses from Boca Ciega Bay and Long Bayou in St. Petersburg. The remaining carcasses were found in Clearwater, Indian Shores, Treasure Island and Largo. 

Garrett said red tide is a neurotoxin that builds up in the manatee’s system. Eventually, the build-up paralyzes the manatee until it eventually drowns.

“They’ll start having buoyancy issues. They’ll be floating weird,” he said. “They’ll be doing weird body behavior where they look like they can’t control themselves. We’ve had animals kind of head up and pirouetting around.”

On Monday, two more dead manatees were taken to FWC’s Marine Mammal Pathobiology Laboratory in St. Petersburg to determine their cause of death. One of them was found in the intracoastal off of St. Pete Beach, while the other was found in the waters off of Fort De Soto. 

Garrett said biologists won’t know for sure what killed the manatees until lab results come back but they were presenting like red tide cases. 

“Which is a fairly fresh, dead, animal, no real obvious external trauma, coming from a red tide area,” he said. “So, it kind of fits the bill for a potential red tide suspect, but again, we won’t know until we actually process through.”

Approaching record year

The FWC team rescued a large adult male manatee from the intracoastal off of St. Petersburg last Thursday, thanks to a call from the captain of Hubbard’s Dolphin Watch cruise who spotted it.

“Person described the nose being on the bottom, the tail being on the surface,” said Garrett. “Almost vertical in the water. Real odd.”

Garrett said it’s important for the public to call the FWC tip line, 1-888-404-3922, if they see a manatee in distress. 

“We really want people to call us if they see an animal they think is stressed or dead for us to go out and respond to,” he said. “We’ll instruct people to actually get in there and hold their head up. Otherwise, the time is just not there for us to get there.”

Overall, the worst year for all manatee deaths, including those caused by red tide, was back in 2013. That’s when 277 manatees were killed by red tide, adding to the record-breaking total of 830.

So far this year, red tide has killed 188 manatees, with a total of 714 deaths statewide.