TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — ZooTampa’s manatee hospital is at capacity as the population continues to die at rapidly rising numbers.

“This is where we get all of the most critical animals on the west side of Florida,” said Dr. Lauren Smith, the director of animal health at ZooTampa.

The David A. Straz, Jr. Manatee Critical Care Center is one of four manatee hospitals in the state frantically trying to save the gentle giants.

“We are one of four critical care facilities in the state of Florida and everyone is essentially at maximum capacity. Hospitalization numbers are at an all-time high,” said Smith.

According to ZooTampa, manatees are threatened by a number of factors including red tide, cold stunning, reduced access to seagrass, and injury and death from boat strikes.

The boating industry saw a boom in sales in 2020. However, so did the number of manatee deaths and injuries caused by boat strikes. Preliminary figures from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) show that overall, there were 637 manatee deaths in 2020, up from the total of 592 in 2019. So far in 2021, more than 500 manatee deaths have been documented.

“This is really concerning for manatees as a population,” Smith said.

The east coast of Florida is seeing heightened problems as manatees are starving from a lack of seagrass.

“It’s an ongoing investigation and what’s happening on the east coast has already been declared what we call an ‘unusual mortality event.’ So scientists are looking into this very closely and the information they have so far really shows that there’s a lack of food,” she said.

ZooTampa sent a letter to lawmakers, asking for help and funding to turn the troubling trend around. It reads in part:

“We recognize that significant research will need to be conducted to identify the origin of the event and determine the long-term effects on the species’ population and its native environment.

​We understand that it is a natural reaction to want to jump in and help directly feed the manatees; however, this could cause more issues than it solves. It is indeed difficult to wait for the results of the investigative science, but we need to understand the causes of this die-off to be able to address it properly.

ZooTampa’s animal care staff and veterinarians are communicating with the professionals that are in the field assessing the manatees’ health and, as one of only four critical care centers for manatees in Florida, we stand at the ready to provide expert medical care for those who need it.

Already facing threats from red tide, cold stress and boat strikes, this event is clearly concerning. ​Addressing this problem will require prompt dedicated action, resources and collaboration from all parties. What’s most important at this time is your support, as well as that of your colleagues, to secure the funds required immediately for the research needed to identify a cause and a solution.

We also suggest at some point, we consider the launch of a public service campaign that helps inform our residents on the plight of the manatee and encourages everyone to work together to ensure the survivability of this iconic Florida species for generations to come. Again, we can help as needed.

On behalf of ZooTampa, I appreciate you seeking out our thoughts and thank you for your dedication to saving Florida wildlife.”