BRADENTON, Fla. - Sick and injured Florida manatees being nursed back to health are about to get even better care in Tampa Bay.
The Bishop Museum of Science and Nature in Bradenton just got more than half a million dollars in state funding to expand their manatee care program. It comes at a crucial time for these mammals which have been dying at an alarming rate.
Inside the museum's 60,000-gallon Parker Manatee Rehabilitation Habitat, you'll find Iclyn, Aria and Janus. The three young female manatees were rescued in January 2021 after suffering from cold stress and being separated from their mother.
They're growing stronger at The Bishop, grazing on 200 pounds of lettuce and greens a day, and The Bishop's growing with them. They just secured $547,000 in state funding to expand their manatee care program.
They plan to lease, retrofit, and operate an existing facility in Myakka City which was previously used for sea lions.
"We'll be able to upgrade the filtration system, the heating system," said the museum's CEO Hillary Spencer. "We'll also need to pay for food and for care and for staff."
Though it won't be open to the public like the museum habitat, the FWC grant will help them increase the state's capacity for manatee care by 10%.
"We're able to hold up to four manatees here at the museum," Spencer said. "But out in the Myakka facility, we will be able to hold, depending on the age, the size and the state of each of the animals, potentially up to nine other animals."
A record 1,101 manatees died last year in Florida, the majority from starvation from bad water quality and algae blooms depleting seagrass beds. So far this year, we've lost 631. That's down from than last year's pace but still well ahead of the five-year average. Experts worry that continued stress is hurting their reproductive health.
"There is not enough high-quality food for those animals," said Martine deWit, FWC Marine Mammal Veterinarian. "So, we can expect that it is going to be giving problems again in the winter when you get that cold stress on those animals."
That's where The Bishop comes in. "This is really a response to a crisis moment," Spencer said.
The Bishop was recently approved for Acute Care Status. On top of holding manatees not ready to return to the wild, they can now provide hospital care. That makes them one of only five facilities federally authorized to treat sick, injured, or orphaned Florida manatees.
"We're here to to save the manatees," Spencer said. "These are really achievable goals in the short term. And given the crisis that's happening with the manatee population, this is a great opportunity.
That $547,000 is just the seed money, expected to cover the renovation and first year of operations. They hope to have the Myakka City facility up and running by the end of the year.
"There are two pools that we'll be working with initially, but depending on the needs of manatees, we could potentially expand that out a little bit more," Spencer said.