Florida officials tell public not to touch manatees during sex

  • Florida authorities are asking the public to stop disturbing manatee mating.
  • The beloved Florida species mates in a herd of one female and many males, sometimes near the shore.
  • A record number of manatees have died in 2021, prompting conservation groups to sue the EPA.

Florida officials this week made a direct request to members of the public: Stop touching manatees when the animals are having sex.

The Sarasota Police Department made the announcement Sunday in conjunction with the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium after a group of mating manatees were spotted near South Lido Beach and “people were trying to touch them.”

“If you see a herd of manatees mating, respectfully observe from a distance. Do NOT touch,” the SPD said in a tweet also shared by the Marine Lab. “If you see a distressed/deceased manatee, call the Mote hotline at 888-345-2335.”

The tweet included photos showing several manatees huddled close to shore in shallow water along the beach.

Manatees, sometimes called sea cows, are large marine mammals and an iconic Florida species. During mating, manatees gather in a large group, with the mating herd consisting of a single female surrounded by a dozen or more males, attracted to her by her pheromones.

The males will take turns mating with the female, for whom the mating season, which can last from March to November, can be exhausting. Kane Rigney, a Florida State manatee biologist, told the Tampa Bay Times that mating herds sometimes come closer to shore because the females try to beach themselves to get away from the males.

Florida manatees are protected by federal and state laws, but recent mortality events have raised concerns for the species. There are about 7,520 manatees in Florida today, up from just hundreds in the 1970s.

But in 2021, 1,101 manatees died in Florida, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. It was the largest manatee die-off ever recorded in the state, nearly double the five-year average. Federal and state wildlife officials classified the fatalities as an “unusual mortality event” that “requires an immediate response.”

Causes of death included collisions with boats or drowning in sluices and canal locks, but the most common factor that killed manatees was starvation.

Researchers attributed the famine to a lack of seagrass in the Indian River Lagoon, located north of Palm Beach on Florida’s Atlantic coast. The lagoon serves as critical habitat for manatees all year round and especially during the winter months.

“Environmental conditions in parts of the Indian River lagoon remain of concern,” according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which added that poor water quality in the lagoon has resulted in “harmful algae blooms and widespread loss of seagrass”.

Three conservation groups sued the Environmental Protection Agency in May, citing poor water quality as the cause of manatee deaths. The lawsuit alleges that water quality standards are not being met and that the Indian River Lagoon is polluted by sewage treatment plants and fertilizer runoff, among other factors.

Organizations such as the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and Save the Manatee are trying to demand that the EPA work with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service to improve lagoon water quality.

“Florida’s beloved manatees will continue to suffer and die as long as the EPA maintains inadequate water quality standards,” Defenders of Wildlife attorney Jane Davenport said in a statement.

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