UNEP logo Regional Management Plan for the West Indian Manatee, Trichechus manatus

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CEP Technical Report No. 35 1995 All CEP Technical Reports


Costa Rica
Dominican Republic
French Guiana (France)
Puerto Rico (USA)
Trinidad & Tobago
United States


Status and distribution

Despite having one of the smallest coastlines of Caribbean countries, Belize contains excellent manatee habitat: extensive mangrove swamps, and numerous lagoons, creeks and rivers opening into the sea are protected by an offshore barrier reef (Charnock-Wilson 1968). Extensive sea grass meadows among the cays provide shelter and pasture for manatees. Belize harbors the largest recorded population of manatees in the region and is considered "one of the last strongholds" for manatees in Central America (O'Shea and Salisbury 1991). Sparse human population and low incidence of illegal take due to a change in feeding habits associated with the loss of hunting tradition contribute to such a privileged situation.

Manatees are seen mainly in the Southern/Northern Lagoon area, including the farther reaches of the lagoon system, e.g., Quamina Creek, Cornhouse Creek, Wagoner Creek, Tum Tum Creek. The largest reported concentration of manatees occurs in the Southern Lagoon (the 1987 aerial survey counted fifty five manatees in the Southern and Manatee lagoons, O'Shea and Salisbury 1989) in the Belize District. This area provides undisturbed habitat, ready access to the sea through the Manatee Bar river, prime feeding grounds and freshwater sources such as the upwelling at Tarpon Hole. Smaller concentrations are also seen in Chetumal Bay, the region west of Ambergris Cay, the Belize City area, Placencia Lagoon and the Port Honduras area (Gibson 1992). Important travel routes include the Manatee Bar River, and its connecting creeks, and Main Creek. Manatees are known to enter the Sibun River but it is not clear to what extent they use the lower Sibun and Radigan Creek as access to the large lagoons (Augusta 1992).

A census based on first-hand observations and interviews with local residents in the late 1960's (Charnock-Wilson 1968) indicated that manatees were common in Belize. Two aerial surveys have been conducted since, with a 12-year interval: Bengtson and Magor (1979) counted 101 manatees in 5 comprehensive flights; O'Shea and Salisbury counted 102 individuals in five flights over selected areas. Despite differences in methodology and the qualitative nature of a comparison, the counts suggest no apparent decline in population size. The percentage of calves observed in both surveys (8.9 and 10.6% respectively), comparable to the 7% for a growing manatee sub-population at Crystal River, Florida (Rathbun et al. 1990) suggests a healthy population. Based on their survey O'Shea and Salisbury (1989) provide an estimated guess of 300-700 manatees in Belize.

Major threats and conservation problems

The manatee population in the Manatee Special Development Area (MSDA) seems to presently be stable but the completion of the New Manatee Road, increasing boat traffic, and a myriad of development schemes may play a major role as far as manatee deaths in coastal waters (Augusta 1992, Matola 1993 in litt.).

The largest and most varied threat is habitat destruction and degradation. The shallow lagoons and waterways of the MSDA are very susceptible to significant alterations, and the unique karst limestone topography of the watershed underscores the interconnectedness of all aspects of the watershed and lagoon system (Augusta 1992). Approximately 50% of the mangroves in the Belize City area have been cleared, primarily for housing projects, affecting natural run-off filtering and drainage patterns of the area, and several large housing and tourism development projects are presently being developed in Chetumal Bay (Gibson 1992). The rapid expansion of citrus and banana plantations in the major watersheds of Southern Lagoon and runoff from sugar plantations and sugar factories into the New River and then into the Chetumal Bay are also a cause of concern (Gibson 1992). Quamina Creek, the drinking water source of Gales Point and a probable freshwater source for manatees has reportedly received agricultural runoff (Augusta 1992).

The tourism industry has grown tremendously in Belize over the past 10 years with an increase of over 300% in the number of visitors between 1980 and 1990 and of 75% in the hotels located on the coastal zone (Gibson 1992). At this point, most travel in the village of Gales Point is done in large dugout canoes with relatively slow 6-30 HP outboard engines. However, the number of faster speedboats visiting Gales Point through the lagoon system from Belize City has been increasing. There has been at least one verified collision with a manatee, and another died allegedly from wounds inflicted by an outboard propeller; several villagers have reported a decline in what they believed to be mating in the shallow waters along the eastern shore of the village (Augusta 1992). The proposed park in Southern and Northern Lagoon will attract more nature tourists and increase high speed boat traffic to the village (Boardman 1993 in litt.).

The use of gill nets in the Manatee Special Development Area, both legally and illegally set, has been increasing in the past years, causing the drowning of manatees, especially young individuals (Augusta 1992). Laws forbidding deployment of gill nets within 1/2 mile of a river mouth are rarely obeyed. On occasion live animals found entangled are clubbed to death (O'Shea and Salisbury 1991). It is also possible that Honduranian shrimp trawlers operating in the shallow trench between the reef and the coastline, cause the entanglement of manatees, although records are nonexistent (Boardman 1993 in litt.).

Despite the protected status, some illegal killing occurs at Ambergris Cay, Dangriga and Punta Gorda. Meat is occasionally offered at markets such as Corozal (O'Shea and Salisbury 1991), and scrimshaw pendants of manatee bone sold to tourists on Ambergris Cay (O'Shea and Salisbury 1991).

Socio-economic significance of the species to local communities

Manatees were abundant in Belize both before and after the European arrival. Artifacts found on several cays suggest that ancient Mayans used manatee meat for food and bones for carvings. Tonnes of manatee bones have been excavated from middens (400-700 A.D.) on Moho Cay, a present-day major habitat for manatees, and old slaughtering site at the mouth of the Belize River (McKillop 1985). Remains have also been retrieved from several other coastal and inland archaeological sites (Bradley 1983). During the 17th century smoked, dried and salted manatee meat represented a food source for buccaneers and pirates (Craig 1966).

A long-term historical association exists between villagers of the Manatee Special Development Area and its rivers, lagoons and manatees. The word "Manatee" (locally pronounced "Malantee") is often used to describe the whole Southern Lagoon area and specifically the village of Gales Point. Villagers of Gales Point are proud of their sailing and fishing heritage, and present a good level of awareness about the uniqueness of their manatee population, often referring to an adult villager as a "malantee" man or woman, or as a "malantaranian". The large federal forest reserve to the west of Southern Lagoon is called the Manatee Forest Reserve (Augusta 1992). Although past populations used to eat manatee meat, younger generations of Belizeans have access to domestic fresh, salted and tinned meat, have not acquired the taste (Charnock-Wilson 1968), and rarely hunt manatee nowadays.

Manatees' greatest potential economic value may be as a tourist attraction. However, caution must be exercised when promoting manatee tourism activities to ensure that these will not have negative impacts in the species and their habitats. In recent years guided nature trips have been planned to observe manatees from small boats in Southern Lagoon and the lower Belize River (O'Shea and Salisbury 1991) and Ambergris Cay or swim with the animals off of Drowned Caye off Belize City (Boardman 1993 in litt.).

National legislation and conservation measures

Manatees are fully protected under Belizean law by the Wildlife Protection Act No. 4 of 1981, administered by The Forestry Department, Ministry of Natural Resources, which prohibits hunting of manatees. Trading of any manatee product is illegal under Appendix I of the CITES Convention, of which Belize is Party. Gill-netting in rivers is illegal. Belize has not yet signed the SPAW Protocol.

A Manatee Special Development Area (MSDA) including Northern and Southern lagoons, has been declared under the Land Utilization Act. Under that designation a zoning scheme is being implemented to regulate coastal development projects, fishing activity, and boat traffic. There are plans to turn Southern Lagoon into a Manatee Sanctuary. The Coastal Zone Management Unit administers a large-scale monitoring programme on water quality in the lagoon system (Boardman 1992, Gibson 1992).

The level of awareness about manatees and their protected status is high among Belizeans, partially because manatees are relatively common in that country but undoubtedly due to the efforts of many active non-governmental organizations. Especially noteworthy is the Belize Zoo Outreach/Future in the Wild, a wildlife conservation education programme established in 1984 by the Belize Zoo, possibly one of the strongest efforts by a local organization in the Caribbean (Matola 1986, 1993 in litt., O'Shea and Salisbury 1991). The programme consists of a traveling exhibit with slide presentations to schools and distribution of posters, the production of a video and a booklet on manatees, and airing conservation films (some donated by Save the Manatee Club, of Florida) on the local national television network. The Coastal Zone Management Project, through the Belize Audubon Society presently conducts a comprehensive coastal environmental education on manatees and their habitat, mainly targeted at school children (Gibson 1992). Manatees are also featured in weekly radio talks and newsletters by The Belize Audubon Society (Matola 1986). Educational materials (posters, brochures) are being prepared by the Coastal Zone Management Project in collaboration with Centro de Investigaciones de Quintana Roo, Chetumal, Mexico (Gibson 1993 in litt.). Educational programmes targeted at local communities and visitors will be a component of the proposed Manatee Sanctuary in Southern Lagoon (Gibson 1992).

In Gales Point, ecotourism has fomented an interest in better protection of manatee in Southern Lagoon (Matola 1993 in litt).

Belize | Colombia | Costa Rica | Cuba | Dominican Republic | French Guiana (France) | Guatemala | Guyana | Haiti | Honduras | Jamaica | Mexico | Nicaragua | Panama | Puerto Rico (USA) | Suriname | Trinidad & Tobago | United States | Venezuela

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Preface and Objectives | Summary | I. Introduction | II. National Status | III. Short and Long-term...IV. References | Appendix I | Appendix II | Appendix III | Table 1 | Manatee Map

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