Manatees are large, plant-eating marine mammals that live in shallow and marshy coastal areas and rivers of the Mesoamerican Reef System. Although they are generally solitary animals, manatees are very curious and are known to approach small and large boats. They will often sleep underwater for half a day, coming to the surface for air for 20-minute intervals, and grazing for food in shallow waters. Manatees have a long reproductive cycle, generally breeding just once every two years, giving birth to a single calf. Manatees help ensure vegetative balance in ecosystems, and their health serves as an indicator to overall marine and ecological well-being.
Poor fishing practices threaten manatees when the capture methods unintentionally target the manatee, an event referred to as bycatch, and injure or kill the animal.
Manatees feed and reside in shallow coastal areas – sometimes only 3-6 feet (1-2 meters) underwater. They are curious creatures, and can often be spotted in high-tourism areas as they venture near boats to investigate. Slow-moving manatees grazing or swimming in developed coastal areas are prone to collisions with boat traffic, which causes injury, maiming and even death to the giant sea mammals.
Coastal development is threatening manatee habitat in shallow waters where manatees sleep and feed.
Manatees depend on sea-grasses and other near-shore ecosystems for food and shelter. These areas are also the most immediately impacted by nutrient run-off from agriculture, which pollutes coastal ecosystems and threatens manatee habitat.
WWF’s work in the region protects ecosystems and critical habitat for manatees. This includes efforts to strengthen management plans of marine protected areas and efforts to improve the enforcement of public policy instruments to conserve key areas where manatees live and reproduce. Also, WWF is working to seek legal protection using the protected area frameworks to safeguard known habitats for manatees.
WWF supports the efforts of local organizations to generate information about manatees and to raise awareness and raise awareness about what is needed to protect them. This includes, for example, supporting a monitoring campaign around critical manatee habitat to help identify usage patterns and migratory corridors for these regions. Other efforts include studying the effects of the tourism industry and port development on resident manatees.