Support the Manatee Cause: Act today or lose them tomorrow - by Jill Heff

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 10, No. 41            November 16, 2000

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Jill Hepp shows manatee bones to LIFE students

In a national effort to raise awareness for the plight of the threatened West Indian manatee native to Belize, Coast Zone Management Authority and Institute(CZMA/I) held their annual "Manatee Week" this week. In San Pedro, the week was organized with the assistance of volunteers from Green Reef, the local marine conservation organization, and Saga Society, the island humane society. This week was designed to help spread information and build concern about the status of this unique marine mammal. 

    The West Indian manatee is a familiar site to many tour guides and fishermen who frequent the waters near Ambergris Caye. This large mammal is often found around mangrove cayes and rivers where there is abundant food supplies. This animal feeds primarily on the sea grass beds found in shallow bays and lagoons. An adult manatee usually weighs around 1000 pounds and can eat almost 10-15% of its body weight in grass each day. That's almost 100 pounds of sea grass every day! Manatees are slow to reproduce, giving birth to a calf every two to five years. Mothers nurse their young and a calf may stay with its mother for up to two years. Manatees have no natural predators, yet the number of manatees found in Belize and worldwide have declined steadily during the last several decades. The last national aerial survey conducted by CZMA/I during March of this year observed a total of 292 manatees. 

    The greatest threat to manatees is from the activities of humans. Manatees inhabit the shallow bays and rivers on the coast of Belize and near many of the offshore cayes. This area has a significant amount of high-speed boat traffic. It can be difficult to spot manatees, which often feed and rest just below the surface of the water. Deaths or injuries from collisions with boat hulls or propellers are significant sources of manatee mortality. Loss of habitat, poaching, pollution/litter and harassment are also other human-induced factors which can lead  to higher rates of mortality.

    In order to protect these "gentle giants of the sea" from being pushed closer to extinction, Belize is working to promote a combination of environmental education, research, rehabilitation and conservation. Activities such as Manatee Week help to increase awareness of this animal's physiology, habitat requirements and threatened status to a large number of individuals. Specialized training for manatee tour guides are also conducted in an effort to teach them about ways to view manatees without disturbing them.

    CZMA/I conducts annual aerial surveys to gain a count of the total number of manatees found in the country to try to determine if the populations are decreasing, increasing or remaining stable. The Belize Marine Mammal Stranding Network (BMMSN) is a group of concerned citizens, scientists and veterinarians who work to rehabilitate injured animals or perform necropsies of dead animals in an effort to better understand the dangers to manatees. "Woody"(currently in Sarteneja, Belize) and "Hercules" (currently in Xcaret, Mexico) are two manatee calves that the BMMSN has worked diligently to rehabilitate this year and plan to release back into the wild. 

    Protecting the habitat of these animals is especially important and the "Friends of Swallow Caye" are working to establish this mangrove caye and surrounding area as a wildlife sanctuary. If the proposal for the wildlife sanctuary is approved by the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Cabinet, the Friends of Swallow Caye plan to hire a warden to control activities and boat speeds in this area that manatees are known to frequent. 

    The following list is provided by the Save the Manatee Club which works to protect the manatee populations in Florida and around the world.

How to Behave in a Manatee Habitat:

* When operating a boat, constantly be on the lookout for signs indicating the presence or habitat of manatees (seagrass beds; a snout, back, flipper or tail breaking the surface; a smooth swirl on the water's surface (created when a manatee below the surface dives deeper).

* When boating, try to stay in channels and deeper water. Avoid sea grass beds.

* Wear polarized sunglasses. They eliminate glare and enable you to see just below the water's surface.

* Steer clear of manatee concentrations.

* Avoid harassing a manatee. For example: look, but do not touch manatees; do not actively pursue or chase a manatee; never poke, prod or stab a manatee; do not isolate or single out an individual manatee from its group.

* Avoid discarding fishing line in the water. It can get tangled in aquatic plants that manatees eat. 

* Help keep the sea and rivers clean by not littering. Or help even more by organizing a clean-up campaign.

* If you see a dead, injured, sick or tagged manatee, or one being harassed, contact the Manatee Researcher at Coastal Zone at 02-30719.

    Green Reef remains active and is beginning a variety of new projects. For more information on their activities please contact Green Reef at greenreef@btl.net or at 026-3254, extension 243. Watch for more information concerning their work in future editions of the San Pedro Sun.



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