ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - This year hasn't been a good one for the Florida manatee. According to state wildlife statistics, there have been more manatee deaths so far this year than all of last year.
A total of 540 manatees have died through Aug. 12, compared to 538 in 2017. Experts blame a cold snap at the beginning of the year and the toxic red tide algae in the Gulf of Mexico for the fatalities.
"We expect the red tide related manatee death toll to rise," said Jeff Ruch, executive director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a D.C.-based nonprofit. "We suspect there are a number of carcasses that have not been reported yet."
Statistics from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission say that red tide is to blame for at least 97 manatee deaths. Red tide is a natural occurrence that happens due to the presence of nutrients in the water and an organism called a dinoflagellate.
The toxic algae bloom has overrun Florida's southern Gulf Coast this summer, devastating sea life and driving people from the water. Over the weekend, television newscasts warned viewers before they showed graphic video of dead manatees in the water.
In Lee County alone, authorities have removed 2.7 tons of dead fish from the beaches.
While manatees don't eat fish - they are herbivores that eat sea grass, among other greenery - they are affected by the red tide in various ways.
They get a triple whammy because they get a toxin through their skin, inhale the toxin when they breathe, and they eat the plants that have the toxic algae on them, said Marilyn Levy Odea, a conservationist and Florida master naturalist who volunteers at a science center in Lee County, along Florida's southwest coast.
She points out that they're also slow-moving creatures and may not be as quick as other sea creatures to avoid the swath of red tide that's hugging the coastline.
Experts say it's likely that 2018 will rival 2013, when 723 manatees died.
"For many years, the leading causes of manatee deaths was collisions with boats," said Ruch. This year, only 79 manatees have died due to boat injuries.
There are approximately 6,000 manatees in the waters off Florida, so losing ten percent of the population is alarming.
The manatee is native to Florida and is considered a threatened species. The rotund, slate-gray manatee is beloved in Florida.
Their likeness can be found on a specialty license plate, as stuffed animals in tourist traps, and, inexplicably, in a Jimmy Buffett song about aging.