DELAND, Fla. - Volunteers were recently at Blue Springs State Park, north of Orlando, helping to clean up debris and trash to help protect the manatees.
It’s the smallest pieces of trash that pose the biggest threats to manatees, advocates say, such as cigarette butts and small pieces of plastic.
Manatees are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Endangered Species act, and Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act.
Two weeks ago, Tama the manatee, was found unresponsive at the state park, according to Cora Berchem, director of multimedia and manatee research associate for Save the Manatee Club.
"We didn’t know what happened but we immediately called a rescue so we had partners from FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission), SeaWorld, and Volusia County basically rush out here to try to get her," she said.
"She was transported to SeaWorld for rehabilitation but unfortunately passed away almost immediately," said Berchem.
Turns out, Tama had somehow eaten fishing line.
"Once they have eaten it, it’s too late. It’s really hard to get that out of their system," said Berchem.
Advocates and experts have said that many manatees in Florida are dying from starvation and struggling to find enough food. In Tama’s case, her death was entirely preventable, advocates said.
"Tama didn’t have any of those issues. She was in really good body condition, really healthy. A mature female who could have had calves," said Berchem.
Wednesday was also "Manatee Appreciation Day," which is why volunteers gathered to clean up the area where several manatees tend to gather.
"If we can stop the trash while it’s on the land it’s a lot easier and it negates the possibility of a manatee ingesting the trash," said Gina McClain, who spent time Thursday volunteering.
"Sometimes it’s really these tiny things that are the most dangerous because it’s what manatees are picking up when they’re eating the vegetation so not necessarily the big-ticket items but oftentimes little things like cigarette butts and little pieces of plastic," Berchem said.
To help protect the manatees, the FWC has these guidelines: do not feed the manatees, do not separate the calf from her mother, do not disturb the males, do not chase or go after them, and do not kill them.
State punishment could be as high as $500 and/or 60 days in jail, while federal violations can be as high as $100,000 and/or a year in prison, according to the FWC.