Research aims to treat red tide's impact on manatees

Some are found dead, others appear lifeless and needing help. Red tide toxins are taking a toll on local manatees. 

"What we see primarily in the manatees is actually a paralysis because it's a neurotoxin, so we actually see a paralysis where it affects their ability to swim so they strand," said Dr.Cathy Walsh. 

Manatees get sick after eating tainted vegetation or inhaling air contaminated with red tide toxins.  Numbers show red tide is to blame for 10 percent of manatee deaths over the last 10 years. 

This year's severe red tide has been especially tough. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says it's suspected or confirmed in 103 manatee deaths. 

Dr. Cathy Walsh with Mote Marine Laboratory is working to turn those numbers around. 

"What we are hoping for is to come to a point where we are able to come up with some suggested treatment options for manatees," she said. 

With help from a grant from NOAA, she's working with a chemist at Florida International University to identify and target a specific cell in a manatee's immune system to which red tide toxins bind. 

"I'm working with her to come up with different antioxidants that might reverse some of the effects of that binding," said Dr.Walsh. 

The hope is for the antioxidants to work better than the current treatment which uses anti-inflammatories to clear the toxin out of their system, which can take months. 

If successful, the new treatment could get manatees back to health a lot faster. 

"This is the first time we have identified a specific enzyme that could be a target," said Dr. Walsh.