by Benjamin Flowers
With all the negatives flowing out of Belize, it’s easy to forget that we live in a country so often described as “The Jewel”. Belizeans have many things to be proud of, and our unique manatee population is one such thing.
With the extinction of the Sterller’s Sea Cow, only four species of Manatee are still in existence: the Amazonian, West African, West Indian and Dugong manatee. The West Indian manatee had two sub- species, which are the Florida and the Antillian Manatee.
Truly magnificent creatures, manatees are the only herbivorous mammals in our waters. They provide ecological balance by eating sea grass and recycling nutrients that nourish smaller fish, which are in turn food for larger fish.
They also provide financial gain for the country as they serve as a very popular attraction in a country that thrives on tourism.
Growing from 10 to 13 feet long and weighing approximately 1200 to over 3,000 pounds, to see a manatee in the water should be nothing short of breathtaking, and Belizeans can take pride in the fact the country is home to the largest population of Antillian Manatees is the world.
While that should bolster Belizeans’ ego, the reality of manatees in Belize is that with only approximately 1,000 left, we won’t be too proud for too long, if the conservation efforts of the Coastal Zone management doesn’t receive the full support of the Belizean public.
The Reporter spoke with Jamal Galvez, research assistant working with the Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute (CZMAI), and Sea to Shore Alliance, who said that the population of manatees in Belize is “no where near the required amount for sustainable development.”
CZMAI’s manatee project began in 2006, and it is geared towards research and managing the Antillian Manatee population. They also work to educate the public on the need to protect this fragile and gentle creature.
Research data collected from January 2005 to December 2010 puts the number of manatee deaths at 76.
The data shows a marked increase from 7 deaths per year, to 19 deaths per year. While 19 per year may be a pittance to the 1000 that are counted, it is notable that while female manatee are capable of reproduction from as early as three years, males are not capable until 7-10 years.
Coupled with the fact that a manatee carries a single calf for a whole year before giving birth and on average bears one calf every 3-5 years, every manatee lost puts the species one step closer to extinction.
The raw data for the injuries and deaths for the years 2011 and 2012 have not been formalized into an official report; however, it depicts a first glance impression of an increase in injuries and deaths due to human interference.
If the number of deaths persist the manatee in Belize will go extinct, if that happens other Countries which are relying on the manatee population in Belize to rebound will also lose out on having their manatee population restored.
Countries in the region where manatees are now extinct are Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Montserrat, Saint Barthélemy, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Martin (French part), Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
With these factors in mind, the CZMAI have worked tirelessly in the research, protection, rehabilitation, and conservation of the Antillia Manatee. Several projects have already taken effect and others are yet to be implemented.
One of the more recent activities for the CZMAI is the lobbying for the “No Wake” zones to be enforced at the mouth of the Belize River.
The area is a frequently visited spot for manatees, and many of them are injured by speeding boats. The CZMAI posted clearly visible signs in the area, and are working in collaboration with the Belize Port Authority to ensure that boats travel the required 5 miles per hour when moving through the zone.
The CZMAI, a division of the Belize Ministry of Forestry, Fisheries and Sustainable Development, has a strategic conservation plan for 2012, which is a collaborative effort with Sea to Shore Alliance.
The plan is to use mark-recapture methodologies with the application of passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags and genetic marker analysis. Manatees will be caught in the wild, genetic samples taken, and given a Pit tag. Once the manatee is released, it will be monitored and its movement patterns and other data will be observed.
The genetic samples will be compared with samples from other manatees from other regions, and the data will be compiled and analysed.
This initiative, which CZMAI has dubbed as Capture Week, continues from June 11-15, 2012.