June 18, 2010

Oil Becoming An Increasing Threat To Manatees

The BP oil spill is becoming a threat to the manatee population as it creeps closer to the Crystal River.

Boat tours are given on the Crystal River so people can see the manatees and swim with them.  If the oil makes it into the river, then it would threaten about 1,000 manatees.

"We do know that the oil is toxic and depending on how weathered it is, it can have a lot of harmful effects if manatees come in contact with it," Patrick Rose, executive director of Save the Manatee Club, told CNN.

"Everything from coating their skin to getting in their eyes, to being ingested ... We don't know specifically because it's not been documented ... never happened as far as I know," he said.

Manatees congregate in the winter in rivers, like springs along the Florida Gulf Coast.  However, in the summer the creatures spread out along the Gulf Coast to Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana and up the Atlantic coast around the Florida Keys.

Rescuers face a difficult task now, as the population is more widespread.

Experts believe that manatee population is at 5,000 in the Gulf of Mexico.  They say about 10 percent of their number was wiped out during this past winter's extended cold.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the lead agency protecting the manatees and other wildlife from the oil.

"We don't know how detrimental it will be if they inhale it, if they ingest it, if they're foraging in areas where sea grass has been oiled," Nicole Adimey, the manatee oil spill response coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told CNN.

"We have no idea how that's going to impact them," she said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service says that they use aerial flights to monitor manatees and other wildlife.  They hope to have about 72 hours to respond to save manatees unknowingly swimming in the path of the oil.

Rescue teams are on stand-by with staging gear and are ready to move in if necessary to try and capture manatees in distress.

However, rescuing large numbers of manatees has never been done before. 

"If we had to move dozens, and it was a situation where we needed to move dozens, then I think we've been assured that we can get the resources, the extra hands that we need to do that," she said.

Manatees can reach 10 feet long and a weight up 1,200 pounds.

Adimey said that if the creatures come into contact with oil, they will be cleaned with dish soap to break it up and to clean the surface of their bodies.

The manatees will then be transported to one of two de-oiling stations.  Once medically cleared, the animal will be transported to a long-term holding facility, just south of the Crystal River Preserve.

According to the federal plan, no manatees will be released back into the wild until the threat of oil contamination is over.

"Capturing, rescuing hundreds of manatees, it's never been done," Rose told CNN.

"We would lose manatees, I believe, if those kinds of numbers of manatees are involved."


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