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Manatee Research

by on Jul 20th, 2010

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The Manatee Project of the Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute began in August of 1996. The project focuses on research, management and education of the endangered Antillean manatee in Belize.

The National Manatee Working Group acts as an oversight committee for the project. Committee representation is broad, including government (Forestry Department, Fisheries Department), academia (University of Belize), non-governmental (TIDE), and researchers (CZMAI, Dr. James Powell of Wildlife Trust, USA and Dr. Benjamin Morales of ECOSUR, Mexico). The primary activities of the committee are:

  • To oversee the CZMAI National Manatee Project.
  • To evaluate all proposed manatee research projects in Belize and provide recommendations to the relevant Ministry.
  • To review legislation concerning manatees and provide recommendations to the Ministry.
  • To ensure sound management plans are produced for protected areas.

The Belize Manatee Recovery Plan (Auil 1998) is a comprehensive document that outlines a four-year schedule of conservation activities that has been followed. The two goals were 1) to prevent extinction or irreversible decline of the species in the foreseeable future, and 2) to prevent decline of the quality of their habitat. A second draft is expected by 2005.

Status & Distribution

Aerial Surveys:

The first aerial survey conducted in Belize was in 1977. Routine aerial surveys began in 1996 and were carried out twice per year, once in the wet season and once in the dry season.

The purposes of the surveys were:
(1) to determine distribution of manatees along the coastal zone of Belize, and
(2) to obtain a minimum count of the population.

The coastline, all major rivers and lagoons, and cays were surveyed. The highest count of manatees was 338 sighted in the wet 2002 survey. The dry 1999 survey had 38 calf sightings, the highest recorded for Belize.

Survey statistics varied, and effects such as water turbidity, wind, and observer experience could have caused this. Based on aerial survey results, important manatee sites from north to south are:

  • Corozal Bay
  • Belize River
  • Belize City Cays
  • Southern Lagoon
  • Placentia Lagoon
  • Port Honduras

For in-depth analysis of aerial surveys conducted between 1996 and 2003 by CZMAI, see “Abundance and distribution trends of the West Indian manatee in Belize: implications for conservation” (Auil 2003).

Manatee Tour Guide Training

An industry which has both positive and negative impacts on manatees is tourism. While the positive aspect is achieved from public awareness and concern, some negative aspects include collisions with watercraft and harassment of manatees. The National Manatee Working Group has thus decided that to effectively protect manatees from the negative impacts of tourism, the training and certification of manatee guides is necessary. The BTB, Forest Department and CZMA&I working towards this shall prove to be a very effective way of helping the manatees and improving the specialized tour of manatee guiding.

The following is the initial concept of the Manatee Tour Guide Training, as was created in 1999. All manatee tour operators should be licensed as “Manatee Guides” and guidelines created as regulations. Tourists would be advised to book with only those guides who are licensed, to aid in our conservation efforts. When violated, offenders would be subject to penalties under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1981 and/or the Belize Tourist Board Regulations, 1992.

The following are recommended policy for tour guiding:

  • Only guides with valid tour guide license from the BTB will be eligible for this specialty license.
  • The BTB will be the certification and decertification agency (directly or indirectly) of licenses, with the collaboration of the. This will also include limiting the number of people certified for an area.
  • Renewal of licenses with review sessions will take place periodically, possibly every two to three years.
  • Certain areas will be designated as suitable swimming areas, based on physical and biological reasoning.
  • At any time, tour guides will be responsible for taking out an official inspector on any of the tours. Periodic inspections should be made in order to ensure continued sound guiding.
  • Installation of mooring buoys should be made at chosen sites for guiding. The best sites are those with clear water, however, manatees can be sighted almost anywhere in Belize. Popular manatee tour destinations such as in Southern Lagoon and around Swallow Cay and the Drowned Cays near Belize City would benefit from mooring buoys. Buoys or stakes in the water should be used for boats to tie on, as well as to demarcate areas of no entry.

Some guides from the following locations have participated in the preliminary training sessions: Cay Caulker, San Pedro, Belize City, Gales Point, Punta Gorda, and Placentia.

Belize Marine Mammal Stranding Network

What is a stranding?

A stranding is a beached animal, one that cannot cope in its present situation or is helpless (Geraci & Lounsbury 1993). Strandings also refer to dead animals.

What is the Marine Mammal Stranding Network and who is involved?

The Belize Marine Mammal Stranding Network (BMMSN) is a non-profit organization dedicated to the study and conservation of marine mammals. It falls under the auspices of the Coastal Zone Management Institute (CZMI), within the Manatee Project and officially began in April 1999. The Network is comprised of four district Response Teams, each with a main office:

The Belize District team has a sub-team in Gales Point. The Institute is the Operations Center (OC) for the Network and shall provide administrative, financial, and technical support where necessary and possible. The other agencies represented in the Network also contribute funds for transportation, equipment, and manpower where possible.

Objectives of Stranding Network:
  • To provide rapid and effective action that will best serve the well being of the stranded animal(s).
  • To protect the public while acting on its concern.
  • To gain maximum scientific information.
Operations Center & Coastal Zone Management Authority/Institute:
  • Provides continually monitored telephone service
  • Coordinates response (primarily for live strandings)
  • Train teams
  • Maintain communications link among all network elements
  • Promote public awareness of network’s activities (with the assistance of the district teams)
  • Gather and archive data
  • Report findings to appropriate agencies
  • Keep track of samples dispersed to authorized individuals
Response Team:
  • Respond rapidly
  • Evaluate situation
  • Provide emergency care
  • Arrange to take action (release, transport, necropsy, specimen and data collection, photographic documentation)
  • Enlist local assistance where necessary
  • Provide information to public and media
  • Protect public health and ensure safety
  • Maintain communications link with Operations Center (OC)
What is the importance of a Marine Mammal Stranding Network?

The Stranding Network is a team organized to assist with strandings of marine mammals in Belize. The best interest of the stranding is made. This may be rehabilitation, release, or possibly even euthanasia. To date, the Network has rescued two live orphaned baby manatees, Woody and Hercules. Both are being rehabilitated for release into the wild.

Finding live strandings is the exception, but those found dead do provide a wealth of information. Carcasses are examined externally and measured to gather complete descriptive and morphometric data. Samples collected from the carcasses are used for DNA analysis (blood and tissue samples), aging (ear bones), toxicology (liver, blubber, bone, blood samples), histopathology (organ samples) and food consumption (faeces and stomach content). These examinations bring new information concerning Belize’s marine mammals and are therefore most valuable.

The BMMSN has rescued four live manatees in need of care. Three were orphaned calves, Hercules, Woody, and Tiny and one was an injured adult female, Erica with a calf of her own. The response for any live stranding is first assessment of the situation, then rescue to bring them back a condition where they can survive in their natural environment.

The female calf was in very poor condition, appearing emaciated and rather weak. She was thought to be about 3-4 weeks, measured 116 cm TL, and weighed 22 kg. She was fed oral rehydration fluid for two days, thereafter an infant’s milk formula was given.

“TINY”: Belize’s Third Orphaned Calf On Saturday, September 6, members of the Belize Marine Mammal Stranding Network (BMMSN) responded to a report of a manatee calf observed alone for two days under a pier in Belize City. It was rescued on Monday, September 8 after an emergency plan was in place, and funds were secured. The calf was given the name “Tiny” by the Hugh Parkey Foundation, who provided initial funds for her care.

Tiny was kept in an inflatable kiddy’s pool and was monitored 24-hours a day by various BMMSN members, and numerous volunteers including students from local colleges (St. John’s College & University of Belize). Dr. Roberto Sanchez, vet for Dolphin Discovery in Puerto Venturas, Mexico, traveled to Belize to make an assessment and to bring in Multimilk® for Tiny’s new formula. She is now in the care of Wildtracks, where she will be for about a year.
This calf rehabilitation is the third that Belize has ventured into. Hercules, was reared in Mexico by Xcaret for a year, and Woody was taken care of in Belize by Wildtracks. The two were rescued in 1999 and are now free-ranging in Southern Lagoon, Belize. They are both in good condition and are regularly monitored with the assistance of Wildlife Trust. The same course of action is intended for Tiny, by rearing her in a natural environment and introducing her to natural vegetation, in preparation for her release into Southern Lagoon in about two years.

The primary member agencies that assist with this phase of Tiny’s rehabilitation are: CZMAI, Wildtracks, Belize Agricultural & Health Authority, and Animal Medical Centre; PACT and Save the Manatee Club also provided donations. All rehabilitation activities are carried through the generous donations of many local and international organizations, without whom, this project would not be possible. For further information, or to contribute towards this rehabilitation initiative, contact Nicole Auil or Angeline Valentine, Manatee Researchers of CZMAI <>.

Learn more about Woody and Hercules

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