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A Fresh Kill: Rare Necropsy Reveals A Clear New Threat to Belize’s Manatees

By Ben Mirin, Safina Center Fellow

On May 15th, 2017 ten explorers, environmentalists, artists, and scientists embarked on a seven-day voyage to study marine mammals off the coast of Belize. Their collaboration focused on documenting marine mammals living in the deep water between Belize’s coastal atolls. Through a growing data set of photographs, drone footage, and underwater recordings, they hoped to learn more about the animals living in these coastal waters in order to create a solid foundation for their protection.

Day 8: Belize City, Belize 

A day after swimming with manatees in Placencia, Eric and Alton saw the news. A dead manatee had washed up on the shore near the Radisson Hotel in downtown Belize City. Another local researcher, Jamal Galves of Sea Shore Alliance, had found it that morning and posted a photo.

Photo: Eric Angel Ramos

Eric turned to Alton.

“We have to go,” he said.

This was a rare opportunity. The bodies of manatees can often take weeks to wash ashore, by which point water damage and decay have obscured most of the data researchers need to establish a cause of death. But this manatee appeared to have died very recently. If the team could perform a necropsy and collect samples from the animal for further study, they could find substantial proof of the kinds of threats Belize’s manatees face in the wild.

Eric messaged Jamal saying they were ready to help and Jamal wrote back immediately, telling them to hurry because the light was going fast.

“We went down to the lighthouse by the Radisson Hotel, looked around…and found it on the shore,” Eric remembered. “It was a six to six and a half foot, four hundred pound female manatee. Alton and I spent a good hour there taking measurements…then we had to deadlift the animal from the rocks on the shore thirty feet over to Jamal’s truck…It was exhausting.”

Photo: Eric Angel Ramos

As Eric, Jamal, and Alton began to dissect the dead manatee they found its stomach was full of freshly grazed grass. There were no signs of any illness or infection, either. Then they found minor wounds on its back from a boat propeller, and upon further examination they could see that a collision had broken the animal’s ribs. Those broken ribs had punctured its lungs, and the manatee died of internal bleeding.

Photo: Eric Angel Ramos

“It used to be hunting,” said Eric, “but there are now so many vessels traveling through critical manatee habitat that boat traffic has become the biggest threat to the species.”

Protecting any animal with a large range is extremely difficult, and manatees travel a lot to survive. As they move up and down Belize’s coast and swim between its rivers and offshore atolls, there is no guarantee the laws and customs that protect them in one region will hold up in the next.

“In this area around the Belize River, even the most careful boaters can cause these animals harm,” Eric said. “If we could educate people, especially tourists, before they get on local boats, it might be possible to curb reckless boating practices and change local behavior for the better.”

Conservation must always balance the needs of a community with the protection of its natural heritage. For fishermen and boat captains on the Belize River, speed equates to income. The more quickly they can return from a fishing trip to deliver their catch, the sooner they can make their next runs. Most of them see a manatee every day.

“These animals are locally common,” said Eric. “I once saw 25 manatees at one time in the area where this animal washed ashore. It makes it hard to understand just how threatened they really are.”

There is still a lot of work to do. Currently the team is waiting for permits to begin studying tissue and whisker samples in the lab for genetic and isotope analysis. Details from these studies will paint a clearer picture of how this animal lived, not just how it died. If we can learn to appreciate how West Antillean manatees survive in the wild, sharing the ocean with them will hopefully become much easier.

Photo: Eric Angel Ramos

This vignette is part of a series by Ben Mirin about his latest expedition to Belize with Hello Ocean, a non-profit that sends teams of scientists and artists on voyages to study and explore marine life at sea. Ben is a Fellow at The Safina Center, a National Geographic Explorer, and a natural sounds recordist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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