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April 7, 2021

Saving Belize’s Sea Cows: A National Priority

Written by: Courtney Weatherburne

 

On the morning of Monday, January 18th 2021, Jamal Galves woke up about 6:00AM as he usually does. He was particularly thrilled that day about hitting the road to Placencia where he would collect data from a tagged manatee he was monitoring. Jamal is always eager to see his favorite animal in the world. As he was preparing for the day ahead, his phone rang around 6:30AM. It was a jogger who had spotted a dead manatee in the Seashore Promenade area in Belize City. Jamal was crestfallen after he hung up the phone. This was the 4th manatee to turn up dead so far this year, 3rd in one week. Instead of heading to Placencia to meet his live languid friend that morning, he had to journey to Belize City to retrieve a dead one. 

Jamal Galves has worked over 20 years in manatee conservation. He is currently the program coordinator in Belize for Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The organization’s mission is to rescue, rehabilitate and release animals back into the wild. In Belize, Jamal’s focus is on Antillean manatees. 

The Antillean manatee is an endangered species of manatee found in the Caribbean Sea. Belize has the largest remaining population of Antillean manatee. The estimated population is 1,000, but the numbers have been dwindling since then, which has prompted Jamal and his Clearwater Marine Aquarium team to plan an updated population count this year. But based on Jamal’s data, there have been 186 reported manatee deaths over the last 5 years, that’s over 30 manatee lives snuffed out per year with the exception of 2020. In a January 2021 interview with 7news Belize Jamal stated “Last year we had a significant decrease in manatee death which is as a result of COVID-19 and the lockdown. We only had 24 incidents last year comparing to 2019, we had 40.” But now that restrictions are being lifted, danger re-emerges. 

There are a number of threats to manatees including poaching, pollution, entanglement in fishing nets, habitat destruction from coastal developments but according to Jamal “boat collisions are the leading cause of manatee deaths in Belize”. These watercraft incidents involve both local water taxi’s and boat tours from cruise tourism. Manatees are either struck by the hull or hacked by the propellers. The hot spots for manatee deaths are Belize City and Placencia due to heavy boating activity, but Belize City specifically the Belize River Mouth is the most dangerous place for manatees to be. Over 60% of manatee deaths occur in the Belize River Mouth, an area manatees migrate to for fresh water. Although there have been continuous training sessions for water taxi drivers and boat captains on how to safely navigate the river to avoid manatee injury or death, Jamal and his team keep fishing dead manatees out of the water with huge, unsightly gashes all over their body.

One of the four manatees found dead this year so far was as a result of one of the most vicious boat collision incidents Jamal has ever seen. Jamal found the helpless manatee in the sea near the Bliss Institute in Belize City with its back split open; its lacerated body rocking against the waves at the blood-tinged surface. There was nothing Jamal could have done to save the manatee. But quite frankly, Jamal can’t save all the manatees on his own. While many Belizeans commendably do their part in reporting dead and injured manatees that wash ashore, a whole lot more needs to be done to protect manatees through government intervention and enforcement. 

Sure, COVID-19 and the mammoth impact it continues to have on people’s lives and the country holds the spotlight as the most pressing issue right now but that doesn’t mean manatee conservation shouldn’t also be a priority. According to Jamal “there is a lack of enforcement by the authorities.” Jamal confirms that there haven’t been any documented cases where water taxi drivers have been fined or charged for driving recklessly in ‘no wake’ zones, neither has there been any water taxi driver charged or held accountable for injuring or killing a manatee with their boats. But Jamal is optimistic about the future of manatees. 

He says that the revised Fisheries Act 2020 now includes the protection of manatees as a mandate of the fisheries department, and Jamal and his team are optimistic about their continued collaboration with the department. The coast guard is also a dedicated ally as they are always willing to assist in patrolling. There is also hope in the impact of sustained awareness and conservation efforts such as the establishment of Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary and Gales Point Wildlife Sanctuary which are dedicated to the protection of the Antillean manatees. 

All these efforts can make a difference. But if nothing is done, the Antillean manatee specie will go extinct in Belize. Period!
Like Jamal says, manatees don’t pay taxes but they are an integral part of Belize’s marine ecosystem. Manatees eat over 100 pounds of sea grass a day, keeping aquatic vegetation low which prevents obstruction by overgrowth. Manatee feces also provides nutritious food for our precious fisheries like lobster and conch, certainly, this is not something we want to think about when enjoying a luscious grilled lobster tail… but manatees, like all other animals, play a crucial role in the overall health and balance of the ecosystem. The sooner we realize and accept this, the better it will be for us and of course for our graceful aquatic friends who, just like us, are trying to survive.

We, can help Belize’s manatees survive, by continuing to report injured or dead manatees to manatee conservationist Jamal Galves and/or the Fisheries Department, reporting vessels that are seen speeding in no wake zones to the Belize Coast Guard and Belize Port Authority, supporting fundraising efforts of those working to safeguard and protect manatees and spreading awareness of the importance of protecting manatees among family and friends and on social media. 

Numbers to Call:

  • Jamal Galves (501) 615-3838 (Point Person)
  • Fisheries Department (501) 224-4552
  • Belize Coast Guard (501) 614-1239
  • Belize Port Authority (501) 222-5665

** All photos provided by Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s team in Belize.

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