Visitors to Belize, a small country just south of Mexico, are so enthralled with manatees that they eagerly pay the high price of $100 or more per person, for a manatee sighting tour even though they are always warned that they may not see a single one of these elusive aquatic herbivores. But their desire to view this enigmatic marine mammal in its natural habitat might be helping push an endangered manatee subspecies further towards extinction.
A beloved, but lesser known marine mammal most closely related to elephants, manatees, or “sea cows,” are bulky, slow-moving herbivorous animals who feed on water grasses, weeds, and algae. Belize is home to the largest population of the endangered Antillean manatee — a subspecies of the West Indian manatee, which ranges in the shallow, marshy coastal area and rivers of the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico and is itself listed as vulnerable. The population of Antillean manatees in Mesoamerica (which includes those in Mexico, Belize, Honduras, and Guatemala) is estimated to be about 2,500 with another 4,200 living in sub populations in other parts of the Caribbean and further south.
Belize, as a nation, is as intriguing as its population of manatees. A former British colony, modern-day Belize was first settled by pirates and loggers, only gaining independence in 1981. It nestles on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, which is the second largest barrier reef in the world, has the lowest population density per land mass in Central America and offers protected status to over 35 percent of its landmass and over 13 percent of its territorial waters. In 2010, Belize became the first country in the world to ban bottom trawling — a destructive industrial fishing method where a large, weighted net is dragged across the seafloor, scooping up everything in its path, including non-target species, and damaging coral. And in 2018, it signed into law a moratorium on offshore oil exploration and drilling in the entirety of Belizean waters. Given these environmentally-friendly measures, you would think the country was a conservationist’s dream. But that’s not entirely the case.
Belize struggles economically and is greatly dependent on tourism, and that, it seems, is taking a deadly toll on its manatees. The situation is particularly dire as Belize is considered to have the largest breeding population of Antillean manatees, numbering between 700 to 1,000.
Although manatees stay in estuarine or marine environments for long periods of time they do require frequent access to freshwater. The problem in Belize is that the rivers these manatees use to seek out fresh water, to mate and to raise their young are traversed by up to 18 sight-seeing tour boats daily. None of those boats are exclusively for manatee watching and usually travel far too swiftly to enable tourists to see them anyway.
If the population were better protected from the sort of mass tourism cruise ships are bringing to the country, Belize could be the source for an increase in manatee numbers across the region. Unfortunately, it seems that these kinds of tours exploit rather than appreciate the beauty of Belize.
Instead of focusing on encouraging tourists to enjoy the natural wonders of the country, their aim is to herd passengers to popular tourist destinations as quickly as possible so that they can get them back to the cruise ship on time. The way these boats are operated, the speed that they travel, and their lack of respect for no-wake zones results in regular collisions with these gentle creatures, which very often leads to their serious injury and death.
Jamal Galves, a Belizean conservationist, known throughout the country as “Manatee Man,” and coordinator of Belize Manatee Project Program for the Sea to Shore Alliance, is unequivocal about the environmental importance of manatees to Belize’s delicate marine ecosystem.
“They are super important for our country and our people as they are the only herbivorous mammals in our waterways,” he says. “They play a very important role in our ecosystem as adults generally eat up to 9 percent of their body weight daily, which in turn allows them to excrete a lot. Their excretion acts as food and nourishment for small fishes and crustaceans. Big fishes eat small fishes and we eat big fishes. So, if we want to continue enjoying marine products we must ensure that we are protecting our manatees.”
To Galves, the man people call when a manatee in Belize needs help, their importance to Belize goes even beyond the ecosystem services they provide. “They are not just important for the service they provide to us but because they are a part of our heritage,” he says.
It appears that scientists, conservationists, and even government agencies in Belize are all in agreement regarding the importance of the long-term survival of manatees in Belize and yet the number of manatees being killed has increased exponentially in the past year. Between 2010 and 2018, over 250 manatee deaths were reported. Of these, 37 died in 2017, and by mid-July this year, there were already 39 reported manatee deaths. 2018 is looking to be a record-breaking year for manatee mortality in Belize. Not all of these deaths were caused directly by boat collision, but those committed to manatee conservation in Belize believe that boats pose the most significant risk to the vulnerable population.
Zoe Walker is the director and co-founder of Wildtracks, Belize’s manatee rescue and rehabilitation center, is very clear about why so many manatees are dying in Belize’s waters. “The increasing rate of mortality is linked to the fast boasts using the coastal waters of Belize City and the Belize River,” she says. “This level of mortality is not sustainable.”
Unfortunately, the natural reproductive behavior of the manatee is as slow as its gentle, sea grass-grazing progress through tropical waters. Manatees have a very long gestation period, lasting 12 to 13 months, rarely giving birth to more than one calf and often have an interval between births of two to five years. Which means they don’t reproduce often enough and in large enough numbers to make up for the loss of breeding adults in the population.
Luz Hunter, a highly-respected Belizean naturalist and co-founder of the grassroots group Manatee Eco Warriors, explains why the situation has become so critical. “From the time that cruise ships or mass tourism started in Belize, it has been unplanned and reactive,” she says. Boats were not designed specifically for river tours, they simply made the snorkeling boats and water taxis do the tours. These boats travel upwards of 35 miles per hour in parts of the river, and have gotten bigger and are now using two and three engines [of up to] 200 to 250 horsepower, and some can carry 50 to 60 passengers. The impact from a collision [with these boats] will break [a manatee’s] bones and damage internal organs, leading to death. Cruise tourism directly is responsible for most manatee deaths in the Belize River.”
Hunter grew up on the banks of the Belize River and has always felt a connection to manatees. In 2017, when she received a call from her daughter, who had seen a photo of a manatee that had been killed in a boat collision, crying and begging her to do something, she felt compelled to take action. Today, she is one of the most active and outspoken members of Manatee Ecowarriors. As a result, she’s become unpopular with some tour operators, but this only makes her more determined to continue raising awareness about the manatee’s plight through education and activism.
Aside from taking reports of dead and injured manatees, helping and supporting those attending and recording these instances, Manatee Ecowarriors has been lobbying the tourism industry as well as coordinating with the Belize Port Authority and the Belize Tourism Board to install signs along the Belize River that state: “No Wake 5MPH by Order of the Belize Port Authority.”
The Belize government seems to have good intentions. Representatives from the country’s forest and fisheries departments are on the National Manatee Working Group, which is developing and providing recommendations to the government and has come up with a National Manatee Recovery Plan.
The Belize Tourism Board says it has been hosting workshops manatee awareness and sensitization for “tour guides, tour operators, boat captains and other stakeholders” and cooperating with frontline conservation groups such as Manatee Ecowarriors, “We continue to seek suitable and necessary tactics and policies to ensure the protection for these creatures, including the use of punitive measures for those in the tourism sector who do not abide by our laws,” it said in an emailed statement.
And yet, manatees continue to be killed by collisions with boats.
While Galves remains hopeful, he believes the only real solutions are a change in how locals perceive this animal, and that, he says, will take time. “I would love to see people’s perspective change as to not seeing manatees as just manatees, but as residents of Belize that deserve the same respect, care, and love as we give to our loved ones — for people to see them not as a part of Belize, but Belizean,’ he says.
“I spend most days, during and outside of work hours, talking about the issues these animals are facing and how can one help them. Telling stories, sharing pictures that will play on people’s hearts to want to care, because it’s only when they care that they will change. Unfortunately, the change we need won’t come as fast as I and manatees would like and hope for. It will require a change in human behavior, which we all know is one of the toughest things.”