Wildlife officials say manatee deaths are not far behind.
SARASOTA — A Florida red tide outbreak close to 16 months old has killed more sea turtles than any previous single red tide event on record, and manatee deaths are not far behind.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission attributed 589 sea turtles and 213 manatee deaths to this episode of red tide, which began in late 2017. It had killed 127 bottlenose dolphins as of Dec. 20, leading the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to declare an unusual mortality event.
Combine manatee deaths from red tide, human actions, cold stress and other causes was 824, according to a preliminary FWC report. A previous die-off killed 803 manatees in 2013 during another red tide bloom.
Preliminary data from FWC showed that the 824 manatee deaths in 2018 from both red tide, sickness and human-related causes surpassed the previous record of 803 set during another red tide outbreak in 2013.
Because of the partial U.S. government shutdown, NOAA has not provided updates for dolphins on its UME website. Dolphin strandings spiked in August and November, but have begun to slow down as red tide shows signs of weakening along the Southwest Florida coast.
Few experienced the gruesome first-hand effects of red tide more than turtle patrol participants, who wore masks and scarves to check turtle crawls following hatching during nesting season, May through October.
Don MacAulay of Englewood said he felt the effects of the airborne toxins — a nearly 150-mile by 20-mile wide bloom at its peak — driving over the bridge to Manasota Key. His throat and eyes burned from the aerosolized red tide toxins carried miles by the sea spray.
The stench of the carnage hung on the summer humidity.
“We were wearing snorkel goggles and respirators to do the job,” said MacAulay, a volunteer since 2016. “It was just horrible. Everywhere you stepped, you couldn’t go down to the shoreline. It was lined all the way with dead fish. … The bugs were worse.”
Turtle patrollers — doctors, dentists, anglers, kayakers, teachers, outdoors people from all walks of life — donned military-grade gas masks or wore scarves over their face on mile-long walks to check for fresh turtle crawls. Later on, they cleared a path through piles of rotting fish to make way for hatchlings racing to the sea.
“The turtles barrel through the dead fish and still nest,” MacAulay said. “We had to go each day regardless of the stench and the toxins in the air. We tried to protect ourselves the best we could. It’s kind of extreme when you’re walking down the beach like you’re in chemical gear in a lab somewhere.”
MacAulay, and many others who signed on for the previously leisurely strolls to check nests — before sunrise and before beachgoers or tides could erase evidence of the crawls — didn’t quit the thankless job.
“We protect every single nest on the beach from predators and whatever,” MacAulay said. “If we miss a day, it’s pretty bad. Even during hurricanes people try to go out before it gets bad.”
In September, an exasperated MacAulay posted a photo of a deceased dolphin on Facebook. It’s jawbone was exposed and it appeared to have been dead for a while.
“Red tide is wiping everything out,” MacAulay told the Herald-Tribune after the discovery.
Fellow Manasota Key patroller Emily Rizzo, whose asthma makes her more prone to red tide sickness — the itchy throat, watery eyes and coughing — continued her duty walking a half-mile stretch despite the symptoms.
“I love sea turtles; I feel an obligation,” said Rizzo, who lives in Venice. “Frankly, if I could have found someone to take my place, I’d be happy to let them do it, but we are short of volunteers. It was tough, but I thought I had to do it.”
The turtle hatchlings needed the support. Coyotes have become very active on Manasota Key in the past few years, according to Rizzo.
“We were very, very worried about our babies,” she said.
Suzi Fox, the director of Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch & Shorebird Monitoring, said 2018 was a highly successful nesting season on Anna Maria Island thanks to about 89 walkers. They reported that an estimated 35,000 hatchlings came from 534 nests on the island.
She suspects there could be a dip in nesting next year after several record seasons.
“People don’t come to Anna Maria Island to visit a high rise,” Fox said. “They come for the wildlife. These people are dedicated to wrapping their arms around the wildlife and protecting it.”
It could be decades before the impact of red tide on the hatchlings is known. Sea turtles take about 20 to 30 years after hatching to reach sexual maturity and mate, according to NOAA.
The data patrollers provided to local and state groups will be vital to studying the long-term impact of red tide on the area’s endangered sea turtles.
“The sea turtle patrol were some of our biggest help during this,” said Gretchen Lovewell, strandings investigations program manager at Mote Marine Laboratory. “They were reporting animals to us every morning, often times collecting them in one area so we could one-stop shop. It was hard enough to pop over the dune and breathe again. They were breathing it in and coughing.
“The death and destruction was bad, but they helped get them out of the environment quicker.”
Mote performed more than 200 necropsies on sea turtles this summer.
The widespread effect of this year’s red tide outbreak made it more difficult to recover and treat marine animals, according to FWC veterinarian Martine DeWitt, who said the 2013 bloom that killed 277 manatees was more localized near Charlotte County.
DeWitt said the recent red tide took more coordination among local and state agencies and that manatees with suspected red tide toxicity are still being collected.
“The toxin can persist in the environment and still be in the sea grass,” she said. “It’s not over yet.”
So far, Manatee County has picked up 316 tons of dead fish from waterways — consuming 892.5 regular hours and 253.24 overtime hours. Cleanup has cost the county $210,543, the bulk of the costs incurred by contracting with a vendor ($154,482) to clear residential canals during the peak of the bloom.
Sarasota County removed 251 tons of red-tide related fish and marine debris from County managed properties at a cost of $231,991.57. About 4 additional tons of debris removed from the City of Sarasota were not included in the county cost.