Protecting Manatees from the Gulf Oil Spill

Manatees have special vulnerabilities to oil.
TAMPA (2010-7-5) -

You might have heard about the ongoing effort to dig up hundreds of sea turtle nests along the Gulf and move them out of harm's way. But what about animals that are a little bit bigger -- such as a 3,500 pound manatee?

That's what John Reynolds is worried about. He directs the Center for Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Research at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota.

He says it's not practical to move manatees out of the oil-affected areas. The best line of defense is to keep the oil out of the places manatees live -- bays, estuaries, and rivers.

“Once you oil those environments, the solutions are costly, they're long-term. Oil persists in the environment for so long,” he said.

“The solution is, do everything you can to prevent the exposure in the first place.”

He says manatees have special features that make them vulnerable to the oil. Their nostrils are right next to water when they breathe, which could expose them to volatile compounds in oil fumes.

Also, they could consume the oil, which is bad in itself, but could also kill bacteria that help manatees digest cellulose.

He said two management groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, are on the alert.

They’re looking for animals who die so they can recover the carcass and learn from that. Or better, he said, they can get the animals while they are oiled but still alive, and get them cleaned up and released.

He says Mote Marine Laboratory is prepared to rehabilitate oiled manatees, but they have not been called on yet for help.

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