Conservation of Antillean manatees in the Drowned Cayes area of Belize



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The purpose of this study was to determine how manatees use Swallow Caye, Drowned Cayes, and Gallows Reef, three distinct habitat types within the Belize Barrier Reef lagoon system near Belize City. Data were collected using boat-based point scan methods with the assistance of volunteers. Presence/absence and photo ID methods ensured consistency of data collection despite a changing pool of volunteer researchers. Results confirmed the mangrove and seagrass ecosystem between the Belize Barrier Reef and Belize City as important manatee habitat. Inconsistent with the prevailing "seasonal distribution hypothesis" for manatees in Belize, the probability of encountering manatees at Swallow Caye and in the Drowned Cayes was equal between dry and wet seasons. However, manatees were only observed at Gallows Reef during the wet season. Swallow Caye had the highest probability of encountering manatees, confirming traditional knowledge held by local tour operators, which led to the establishment of Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary in 2002. In contrast to previous studies, my data suggest that at least 44% of the manatee population carry scars from non-lethal boat strikes. The proportion of scarred animals did not vary as a function of habitat type, season, or year. The probability of encountering manatees did not change between years, despite an exponential increase in cruise ship tourism. Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and wildlife protection laws indicate that Belize is working to meet obligations under international agreements. However, there is still cause for concern. Manatees do not remain inside designated refuge boundaries; governmental agencies depend on co-management agreements with local non-governmental organizations for enforcement of rules inside MPAs; regulations governing human behavior outside MPAs are lacking; funds for monitoring and evaluation of MPAs are lacking. Manatee conservation strategies should be integrated into a system of riverine, coastal, and marine protected areas supported by additional tactics such as required manatee training for boat captains, slow zones at hot spots outside MPAs, and continued educational outreach. With few modifications and increased enforcement and monitoring, the Belize model for manatee conservation could lead to a shared "triumph on the commons" for the manatees and the user groups that shared their habitat.