The toxic red tide has been raising states of emergency within Florida counties over the past few months. The harmful algal blooms are causing extensive fish deaths as well as sickness and death in sea turtles, birds and marine mammals, including manatees. Scientists at Florida International University (FIU), in coalition with Mote Marine Laboratory, are racing against the clock to neutralize the poisonings with a new treatment.

Red tide accounts for 10 percent of manatee deaths in the last decade. Because of the current bloom cycle, that could jump to a tremendous 30 percent in the near future. Thanks to a $428,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s ECOHAB program, a three-year program is being launched by FIU and Mote to improve veterinary care for rescued manatees affected by the Florida red tide.

The project allows scientists to study cellular immune responses in the marine mammal to various antioxidant treatments. “The current approach is simply to give palliative care and wait for them to clear the toxin and get better,” explained Kathleen Rein, the FIU chemist that is leading the research team in tandem with colleague Cathy Walsh, a marine immunology expert at Mote’s labs.

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The current treatment, which uses anti-inflammatory substances, just isn’t ebbing the tide. “This new treatment could accelerate the healing process,” Rein said. “If this treatment is successful, it could be used with many other animals including dolphins, turtles and birds.”

The manatee recently advanced from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species list to threatened status. However, the current Florida red tide bloom, which is continuing without any predictions on its duration, has already claimed more than 103 of the 575 manatee deaths this year — almost 18 percent. “The need for better treatment is underscored by the current, long-lasting bloom of Florida red tide and its intense impacts on Florida manatees,” Walsh said. With the current red tide bloom being the worst the state has endured since 2005, the situation is critical.

+ Florida International University

+ Mote Marine Laboratory

Image via Ramos Keith / U.S Fish and Wildlife Service