A new scientific survey has returned with good news for one of the ocean’s most loveable creatures – the endangered Antillean manatee is making a comeback in its Belizean home waters.
An Oceanic Society team led by Dr Holly Edwards spotted a record number of manatees during an aerial survey over Belize’s Turneffe Atoll. Combined with results from a coastal survey undertaken by Belize’s Coastal Zone Management’s Nicole Auil Gomez, 507 manatees have now been sighted.
The team said that as more manatees exist than the number seen, and considering that less than 2,500 adult Antillean manatees are believed to exist worldwide, the survey results are heartening.
The results also prove that Belize’s efforts to protect the gentle, shy “sea cow” are working.
Antillean manatees, also called Caribbean manatees, are found throughout Caribbean coastal areas and the Gulf of Mexico. Usually found near fresh water sources, they graze on sea grass and were once a prized food source in some cultures. The survey team said that finding such a number of manatees at Turneffe, which has no fresh water sources, made the find that much more intriguing.
Public awareness campaigns and legislation has effectively ended the use of manatee as food in Belize, but the creatures are still at risk from accidental collisions with boats, entrapment in fishing gear, and the degradation of their habitats.
According to a Huffington Post blog from Dr Bryan Wallace, chief scientist of the non-profit Oceanic Society, “The surveys help scientists learn the manatees’ travel patterns and habitat use in Belize, which can be used to guide boat traffic routes to reduce collisions with manatees, as well as other management issues.”
Dr Wallace pointed out that while Turneffe remains threatened by climate change, overfishing, and invasive species and that “the drumbeat for big-dollar, unsustainable development projects is growing louder by the day,” there is a bright side. “Multiple stakeholders from fishing communities, ecotourism companies, conservation groups, and government managers are developing a conservation management strategy for Turneffe. These efforts are encouraging, but have a long way to go,” he said.
Lucy Fleming, owner of The Lodge at Chaa Creek, where 24 young Belizeans recently graduated from its annual environmental educational Eco-Kids summer camp program, said the survey results were another reason for optimism about the long term health of Belize’s vibrant yet fragile eco system.
“Those of us closely involved in Belize’s environmental sustainability can take heart in some of the positive things that are happening. Having recently spent time with young Belizeans who are now passionate about protecting their environment, and then hearing this good news about one of Belize’s most iconic marine mammals has been very encouraging. While there is obviously still much work to be done, these sorts of positive outcomes renew your faith in the future and give you the energy to keep going. It’s great to be able to occasionally count your blessings,” she said.
Image courtesy The Lodge at Chaa Creek