The Coastal Zone Management Authority & Institute in the Ministry of Forestry, Fisheries & Sustainable Development completed marine mammal aerial surveys along the entire coast of Belize. Nicole Auil Gomez led manatee surveys on April 3rd - 4th, and cetacean (dolphin and whale) surveys on April 13. The Oceanic Society carried out the surveys for the Turneffe Atoll on April 10th – 11th, led by Dr. Holly Edwards.
Eighteen national manatee surveys have been carried out since 1977, and the last count was done in 2007. The surveys provide information on distribution and relative abundance, which are applied to management strategies, including the national Coastal Zone Management Plan. The coastline, all rivers, large lagoons, and a sample of cayes were surveyed using standard protocol. A total of 507 manatees were sighted, with 10% of them being calves. This is the highest count recorded for Belize, still known globally to have the greatest number of the endangered Antillean manatee. Some key areas were in and around the Belize River; the river itself had 25 manatees; the Turneffe Atoll had 14 manatees, Placencia Lagoon had 31 individuals, and the Southern Lagoon (Gales Point) had a remarkable 52 animals. The count is a minimum population size, as for every animal seen, others present are missed.
Cetacean aerial surveys were conducted for the first time, and extended between 17 and 50 miles from the coast. The survey team searched for pods of dolphins or whales, such as rough-tooth dolphins, killer whales, pilot whales, and sperm whales which have been seen in Belize’s waters. The observers were thrilled to make two sperm whale sightings at the southern end of the barrier reef, swimming southward towards Honduras. This was not the first recording of sperm whales in Belize, but very little is known of their ecology here.
Other species spotted during the surveys were 33 dolphins, 11 turtles, and four crocodiles. The public is asked to report any known sightings of large dolphins or whales to the CZMAI.
The flights for the surveys were donated by the conservation organization LightHawk. LightHawk has provided flights at no cost to various organizations in Belize for the past 31 years, including most of the CZMAI manatee aerial surveys. In Mesoamerica, from January to June each year, LightHawk volunteer pilots fly missions to enhance regional conservation efforts. In this case, aerial surveys allowed scientists to spot marine mammals to effectively monitor a large area in a short amount of time.
Press Release — Coastal Zone Management Authority