Saving Florida’s Manatees: A Race for Science

SeaWorld Orlando’s senior veterinarian, Stacy DiRocco, received a call in May 2022 about a robust female manatee that had been found with a boat-strike injury to the side of her body. The injury was severe and it was presumed that the manatee, which was named Reckless, wouldn’t survive. She was rescued along with her newborn calf and brought to SeaWorld. Reckless had extensive injuries to her shoulder blade and her left pectoral flipper, making it impossible for her to feed her calf from that side. Following nine groundbreaking surgeries, physical therapy, supplemental feeding, and a variety of treatments for ailments, Reckless has made a remarkable recovery. Her rehabilitation team expects to soon return her and her calf to Florida waters.

Approximately 1,100 manatees died in 2021, and the number decreased to 800 in 2022, but it’s still above the five-year average. Manatees face a host of problems, including boat strikes, entanglements with fishing gear, red tide caused by overgrowth of harmful algal bloom, and climate change. In recent years, a decline in seagrass, their main food source, caused by nutrient pollution from fertilizer runoff, has led to the slow starvation of manatees. Researchers are working on restoration projects to grow seagrass in nurseries and replant them in Florida’s bays and estuaries. However, restoring a single acre costs around $20,000, and improving water quality is a complex issue that requires a host of measures, including decreasing runoff, improving wastewater treatment, reducing the use of septic tanks, enhancing storm-water management, and preventing the overharvesting of beneficial shellfish species, which act as filters.

Public awareness of the manatees’ plight has brought about some positive changes, including slow speed zones along critical waterways and rescue and rehabilitation efforts. SeaWorld currently has the largest facility dedicated to critical and supportive care, and in April, Clearwater Marine Aquarium broke ground on a new rehabilitation center that will significantly increase its capacity to care for animals in need. Experts hope that a revised Florida Manatee Recovery Plan, along with efforts like Brevard County’s sales tax to aid conservation efforts and education campaigns about the impact of lawn fertilizers, will help in the long-term recovery of the species.

 

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