SARASOTA — Mote Marine Laboratory has been designated as a leader in a federal effort researching dolphin deaths due to red tide in Southwest Florida.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared this week an unusual mortality event (UME) to investigate bottlenose dolphins deaths due to red tide algae, Karinia brevis^p. NOAA will establish an independent investigative team of scientists to review the data and provide guidance for the investigation.
The federal UME isn’t the first to be issued due to red tide. NOAA issued a similar UME in 2004-05 when 190 dolphins died in Southwest Florida waters.
NOAA named Mote Stranding Investigations Program manager Gretchen Lovewell as the on-site coordinator for the UME. Lovewell will oversee and coordinate data management, as well as complying data results and analyses from partnering scientists.
NOAA is also coordinating its efforts with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, NOAA spokeswoman Kim Amendola told the Sun^p Thursday.
“So far — that we know of — the only marine mammals directly impacted by the red tide are bottlenose dolphins and manatees,” Amendola said. While NOAA has oversight of dolphin and whale management, she said the FWC and U.S. Fish and Wildlife agencies oversee management of manatees and sea turtles.
“Since July 2018, elevated bottlenose dolphin mortalities have occurred along the Southwest coast of Florida including Collier, Lee, Charlotte, Sarasota, Manatee, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties,” a NOAA press release stated Wednesday.
Southwest Florida was seeing the average, less than 10 dolphin strandings a month, until June and July, when the dolphin deaths started spiking, and in August alone more than 40 dolphins were recovered. NOAA received reports that more than 50 of the dolphins died from the red tide algae toxins.
“Elevated bottlenose dolphin strandings began in June and July 2018,” Mote Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program coordinator Teri Rowles said in a press release. “There have been 49 dead and one stranded alive from July 1 through Sept. 3 in the affected counties. This is well above historic average for this time period and geographic area.”
A majority of the deceased dolphins Mote examined had full stomachs, which is often characteristic of the marine mammals dying of acute toxicity from a red tide. Dolphins can be exposed to toxic levels of red tide when they consume contaminated prey, Rowles said.
Not only dolphins
Mote’s Stranding Investigations Program has also recovered 181 stranded sea turtles — nine of which were alive, 172 dead.
Since November, when red tide blooms first plagued Southwest Florida coastal counties from Pinellas south to Collier, the FWC documented 953 stranded sea turtles in the affected counties. Of those sea turtles, the FWC considers 402 as succumbing to the red tide.
Mote assists in the recoveries of dead manatees for the FWC. State researchers suspect 80 or more manatees died from exposure from red tide. The latest statewide status of manatee mortalities can be found on myfwc.com.
Mote recently treated three critically ill whales. Sadly, all three have since died. Two pygmy killer whales were taken from Clearwater to Mote for treatment last month. A third, a male melon-headed whale, was recovered off Longboat Key on Sept. 4 and it also died.
“When offshore whales end up in coastal waters and strand, they are often in highly critical condition,” Mote spokeswoman Stephannie Kettle said Thursday. “While our team worked around the clock to provide care, the whales unfortunately did not make it.
“Mote staff has collected samples from the three whales and sent them to FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute to test for Florida ride tide toxin exposure,” Kettle said. “Lab results may take several weeks.”
Red tide reports
In the meantime, there’s no signs of relief from the red tide blooms.
According to the FWC’s mid-week report Wednesday, high concentrations, a million or more cells per liter of water, were discovered in water samples collected inshore and offshore of Pinellas, Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte, and Lee counties.
Multiple locations in Pinellas, Sarasota, Charlotte and Lee counties showed an increase in concentrations. Only Collier County saw a drop in its red tide concentrations
Mote’s daily beach conditions at visitbeaches.org reported Thursday dead fish washing ashore and “slight” respiratory irritations on local Gulf beaches.
Counts reaching 100,000 or more cells or more per liter of water can lead to fish kills and respiratory irritations in humans. A million or more cells per liter can result in waters being stained a reddish brown.
For the first time this year, the FWC discovered blooms starting to appear in waters off Florida’s northwest coastal counties in the Panhandle, especially in Bay County.