Fighting to Protect the Manatees of Belize

When it comes to environmental issues it is often said that no one cares, that the world is plagued with complacency. A group of concerned citizens, led passionately by Lionel "Chocolate" Heredia of Caye Caulker, is proving that, in fact, environmental activism is alive and well in Belize. Known as the "Friends of Swallow Caye," this organization is fighting to protect this popular manatee habitat located off the coast of Belize City. Last Tuesday, with the assistance of the San Pedro Tour Guide Association, this organization held an open forum at the San Pedro Town Hall to discuss the project and address any concerns of the community, particularly those of tour guides.

The project focuses on establishing Swallow Caye as a Wildlife Sanctuary. This mangrove island is located a few miles east of Belize City in an area known as Drowned Caye Range. Due to its proximity to Belize City, there is commonly heavy traffic from water taxis, tour boats and barges. Normally this wouldn't be cause for concern, but Swallow Caye also happens to be a critical feeding and breeding site for the West Indian Manatee.

As most are aware, throughout the world the manatee population is severely threatened and in some places even endangered. According to the Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute, the organization responsible for conducting annual aerial manatee surveys, the current population of manatees in Belize hovers in the 700 - 900 range. Reports of declining manatee populations date back to 1883, when hunting of these docile and slow-moving creatures was rampant. Illegal hunting still occurs (mostly in southern Belize), but today the greatest threat to manatees results from boat traffic. Due to collisions with boats, propeller-scarred manatees are becoming an increasingly common site. Moreover, as boat traffic increases, manatees are left with fewer undisturbed creeks and channels for calving and resting areas, thus they are forced to seek out less suitable habitats to avoid such harassment.

Reef Brief is a weekly column published in the San Pedro Sun
In an effort to minimize these threats, the Friends of Swallow Caye was formed in July of 1999. Since this time, Chocolate has approached the Belize Rural South Area Representative Patty Arceo, the Department of Natural Resources, the National Manatee Working Group, as well as tour guides from Belize City, Caye Caulker and San Pedro for support in establishing the area as a sanctuary. The primary objective of the proposed project is to have regulations set in place to reduce the amount of engine or anchor use in this critical habitat. With the exception of a few guides who would rather not follow any rules or regulations, the organization has received full support for this project thus far.

If, after additional government lobbying and community support, the area is finally declared a Wildlife Sanctuary, the Friends of Swallow Caye will develop a management plan as an outline to explain how the sanctuary can most thoughtfully be utilized and protected. Ultimately, through fund-raising and allocation of grants, the organization hopes to hire a full-time ranger to monitor the area, ensuring enforcement of regulations.

At this point, it looks hopeful that this project will advance. Fortunately for Belize, the Friends of Swallow Caye have had the foresight to know that if something is not done now to protect this habitat and the manatees that live there, these creatures could eventually be gone forever. If you would like to assist the Friends of Swallow Caye in their cause, they can be reached at 022-2151 or [email protected]

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