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Potential sick manatee surge prompts Clearwater Marine Aquarium to make room

The rescue and rehab facility is working to create extra space for manatees in need of care at an off-site location in Tarpon Springs.

TARPON SPRINGS, Fla. — Just like hospitals were making space for expected COVID patients last spring, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium is gearing up for a surge of sick manatees expected across Florida.

“Manatees are really in dire need of assistance,” said Kelly Martin, the director of animal care for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

The biggest threat to Florida’s official marine mammal used to be from boats and their propellers. But now experts say they’re also facing new threats.

“What’s happening over on the east coast is what we call an unusual mortality event,” said Martin. “Essentially the sea grasses are dying off. The sea grasses are what the manatees eat, so you see a lot of animals out there malnourished.”

And on Florida’s west coast, the outlook isn’t much better.

“We have of course the red tide events,” said Martin of the current situation along the Gulf Coast. “And then in addition, in the winter there are going to be the cold stunning events. So, it’s really just a trifecta and we’re planning and preparing.”

For this reason, the aquarium is gearing up to help.

They’re working to expand their facilities off-site at their Tarpon Springs location and working to make room for extra manatees should space be needed.

“The pool right behind us will house manatees as early as this winter,” said Martin. “Our goal is to find funding so we can not only utilize this pool but actually add to our capacity so that we can continue our work.”

Manatees were taken off the endangered species list in 2017 and down-listed to "threatened" after federal wildlife managers determined manatees were on the rebound. Now, Martin worries that could be changing.

“Unfortunately, the series of events that are happening right now, we’re going to have to take a look at those numbers and unfortunately maybe bring them back down to that endangered status,” Martin said. “Numbers will tell and will do our best to ensure that doesn’t happen.”

RELATED: Clearwater Marine Aquarium set to open manatee rehabilitation center

RELATED: What types of animals are affected by red tide?

RELATED: 'Unprecedented': 841 Florida manatees have died so far this year

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