With its diverse and pristine marine ecosystems, Belize supports a vast and rich collection of marine life. Many of the species found in Belizean waters are vulnerable or listed as endangered on the IUCN Red list, including the West Indian Manatee (Trichechus manatus). It has been found that Belize is home to an estimated 800 to 1000 West Indian Manatees, the largest population in the Caribbean, and therefore it is important that conservation efforts are in place to protect them.
The West Indian Manatee, which comprises of two sub-species (the Florida manatee, Trichechus manatus latirostris and the Antillean manatee, Trichechus manatus manatus) is a marine mammal which frequents seagrass beds, mangrove forests and coral reefs and this complex mix of ecosystems can be found in two of TIDE’s protected areas: Port Honduras Marine Reserve (PHMR) and in the lagoons and rivers of Payne’s Creek National Park (PCNP).
One of the founding reasons for the creation of the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE) was due to the destruction of ecosystems and the impacts local fishing practices were having on manatee populations in this area. This is why manatees can be seen on the TIDE logo and the health of these populations hold great importance to the organisation.
The main threat to manatee populations in TIDE’s protected areas are currently from boat strikes, although this is relatively low due to the small amount of boat traffic within the protected area. In addition, there are thought to be future threats to this species from proposed oil exploration and drilling in PCNP and PHMR. If plans for oil exploration are to go ahead then this will pose as a serious threat to manatee populations in the future.
To understand the potential impacts oil exploration may have on the marine species found in PCNP and PHMR, a baseline population study was conducted in 2014 by Master’s student Tránsito González Medina with the support of TIDE and R2R volunteers to improve understanding of the distribution and movement of manatees in southern Belize. From the baseline study, management practices can be put in place to protect these majestic creatures.
To carry out this research, five zones were selected throughout the Payne’s Creek National Park and the Port Honduras Marine Reserve, choosing a range of habitat types and using evidence from previous studies where sightings of manatees had
been recorded. Collecting data was carried out on boat patrols and using a kayak to reduce the disturbance to the manatees, recording information on the size, sex, location, behaviour and number of manatees at each sighting. Over the period from 9th June to 4th September 2014, 64 surveys were conducted with a total of 112 sightings recorded.
The conclusions from this study showed that there is a presence of manatees in TIDE’s protected marine areas and further, longer studies are needed to create a more accurate estimate of population size. There were also a number of recommendations suggested such as:
- Limit the number of boats in the protected areas to reduce potential of boat strikes
- Continue to enforce a speed limit of 10 miles/hour in Payne’s Creek and Frenchman Lagoon
- Erect new signs to identify new “no wake areas” (areas where speed limits are in force)
- Develop an Action Plan for the rehabilitation of injured manatees by contacting local manatee groups such as Wildtracks in Sateneja
- Conduct training in handling manatees with rangers of the PHMR and PCNP so that in the event of an injured manatee, they can be handled in a safe and correct manner.
- Conduct study of seagrass in PHMR and PCNP as this is a manatee’s primary food source. Understanding the abundance of seagrass beds will enable TIDE to gain greater understanding about the distribution of manatee populations.
- Annual surveys – surveys are recommended to be carried out in both the wet and dry season to record the variation in seasons on manatee populations.
- Aerial surveys – collaborate with the Fisheries Department and the organisation Light Hawk to include TIDE’s protected areas within ongoing aerial surveys to collect further data on the abundance of manatees.
- Satellite tracking – Using satellite tags, the behaviour and movement of manatee populations can be tracked to highlight patterns in behaviour to improve management.
From these suggestions, TIDE has immediately introduced more “no wake zones” into the marine protected areas and plans to carry out further research into sea grass bed health and eventually satellite tagging of manatees. The ongoing monitoring of manatees will continue to ensure strong baseline data is gained to help in the protection of this species.
During the research for this project, Individual Placement volunteers Alison Shepherd and Hannah Holah, joined Tránsito out in the field, collecting data through manatee patrols and sightings. With the ongoing monitoring of manatees in the PHMR and PCNP, there may be future opportunities for Ridge to Reef volunteers to get involved with manatee research here at TIDE.
To read the full report please click here: Baseline population study of west indian manatee (trichechus manatus) in Port Honduras Marine Reserve, Belize
Credits go to Tránsito González Medina, Benjamín Morales Vela and TIDE.
Watch video to see Tránsito presenting her findings: