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HOMOSASSA — Four male manatees began their sojourn Thursday in the crystal clear waters of the Homosassa River spring head after being rescued from the clutches of certain death in the hazy waters of Southwest Florida.
Seasonal harmful algal blooms, commonly called red tide, are wreaking havoc on fish and marine mammal populations in the coastal waters from the Tampa Bay area to Fort Myers. So far this year, 174 manatees have died — the highest number of red-tide-related deaths in a single calendar year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Florida’s manatee population is estimated to be about 5,000.
Manatee rescue personnel are working overtime to capture injured ones and transport them to Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa for rehabilitation.
The four manatees brought to the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park were released into the spring run area of the Homosassa park until it is safe to return them to where they were caught, according Susan Lowe, wildlife care supervisor.
“We don’t know how long they will get to stay,” Lowe said. She said the park’s spring area has held about 80 manatees previously.
Thursday, dozens of people gathered around a holding pool as the four sea cows were lowered in by crane. The crowd applauded each time one was successfully lowered.
Among those present was manatee scientist Dr. Bob Bonde, who described the algal blooms as neurotoxins that, in essence, put the mammals and fish to sleep.
“They can’t lift their heads and therefore can’t breathe, so they drown,” Bonde said.
Red tides, Bonde said, often occur in early or late winter.
Opinion is mixed about what causes the harmful blooms; one camp insists they occur naturally while another says they are caused by manmade pollutants.
In a release issued Monday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said state and federal scientists are collecting and analyzing data to better understand what they call an ongoing “red-tide event.”
Manatees are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Officials at USFWS said they have begun work on a proposed rule that would reclassify the manatee from endangered to threatened, based on improved populations.
“We are working with the FWC (Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission) along with other researchers and state partners to assess what is needed immediately in response to this event, as well as what this and other recent events may or may not mean for manatee recovery,” said Leopoldo Miranda of USFWS’s Southeast Regional Office.
“Our priority remains the animals, not the process,” he said.
Save Crystal River Inc., a citizen advocacy group via a watchdog group called the Pacific Legal Foundation, petitioned USFWS last December to reclassify the manatee. The service has 90 days from the day it acknowledged receipt of the foundation’s petition to put notice in the Federal Register regarding the issue.
Contact Chronicle reporter A.B. Sidibe at 352-564-2925 or email@example.com.