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Health, Science & Environment

Columbus Zoo takes in four manatees from Florida, a species on the brink

Grahm S. Jones
Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

In its more than two decades of hosting manatees, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium has frequently served as a rehabilitation center of sorts.

Earlier this month, four injured manatee calves were flown to the zoo to free up space at SeaWorld's Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Florida.

“These four represent our 36th, 37th, 38th, and 39th manatee that has come through the doors here at Columbus. So we are ready. We knew what we were getting into. And we just wanted to help out," said Becky Ellsworth, curator of the shores region at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

The transfer speaks to a larger problem plaguing the manatee population in the Sunshine State. Florida manatees are in trouble. In 2021, more than 1,100 of them died--almost double the five-year average. The plight of the manatee is so perilous that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has classified it as an Unusual Mortality Event, or UME--an issue requiring an immediate response.

“Manatees are... we call them the gentle giant. The unfortunate part [is] the only real predator they have his man," said Jon Peterson, vice president of zoological operations at Sea World of Florida.

Peterson has spent the better part of the last 25 years rescuing manatees. Most don't come in without a scar.

"Unfortunately we like to play in the waterways, and that's their home,” said Peterson.

But it's not just run-ins with boats endangering the Florida manatee. Their biggest threat is starvation.

“Everybody thinks Manatees are really fat. And they're really not- they get a really thin layer of blubber. They've got a massive bone structure," Peterson said.

Peterson explained a 2,000-pound manatee will eat about 200 pounds of vegetation every day. But in warm-water estuaries up and down the Florida coast, algae blooms have killed off the seagrasses manatees rely on.

“So instead of seeing these warm water areas with all of this abundant green sea lettuces, we're just seeing kind of deserts underwater," Ellsworth said.

The problem is pollution.

“Nitrogen, Phosphorus from septic tanks from sewage from fertilizer is runoff into their habitat," said Elizabeth Forsyth, a senior attorney with Earthjustice, a nonprofit focused on litigating environmental issues.

"Something like 96% of the seagrass has died. And as a result, the manatees are starving to death," Forsyth said.

Earthjustice is representing three environmental groups who in December issued a formal notice of their intent to sue the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for failing to protect manatees from water pollution in Florida.

“EPA is the federal agency that at the end of the day is responsible for ensuring that our nation waters are clean and that species like the Florida manatee are protected and can thrive, and at the end of the day, it's EPA who needs to come in and figure out how to solve the pollution problems that are plaguing the ecosystem here,” she said.

WOSU reached out to the EPA for this story but did not receive a comment.

Back at the Columbus Zoo, the four new calves are settling in with their tank mates. The ultimate goal is to release them back into the wild, but what kind of wilderness ultimately awaits them remains uncertain.

“These are just the most tragic Band-Aids to an ecological collapse problem that I can possibly imagine. What really needs to happen is we need to clean up the waters that are so polluted that their food is going away, and they're starving to death," said Forsyth.

"And if we don't do that, there's really no hope for the species. We can't keep them in zoos for the rest of their life and then re-release them into a place that's a wasteland for them.”

Health, Science & Environment Columbus ZoomanateesEPASeaWorldAlgae blooms
Matthew Rand is the Morning Edition host for 89.7 NPR News. Rand served as an interim producer during the pandemic for WOSU’s All Sides daily talk show.