National and international effort to protect Cuban manatee

First manatee to be captured and tagged in Cuba for research purposes

First manatee to be captured and tagged in Cuba for research purposes

The eradication of trawl net fishing in Cuba is just one of the outcomes from a collaborative effort to manage and conserve the Cuban manatee.

The West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus) is the most widely distributed manatee species. Historically there has been a poor knowledge about its status in Cuba due to a lack of or incomplete scientific research. Nonetheless some modest management and conservation actions have been implemented. Because the manatee population in Cuba could be considered a regional stronghold with benefits for manatee distribution in other neighbouring countries, the Cuban government has recognized that further work needs to be done to diagnose and improve its current status.

The Cuban manatee faces several conservation problems – lack of enforcement for the existing regulations, and human threats. Poaching and use of inappropriate fishing gear are, at the moment, uncontrolled pressures that in combination with the country’s economic situation significantly decrease the survival of manatees in Cuba.

Some of the manatee distribution and abundance information has been inferred by analysis of habitat representativeness and availability of important resources like sea-grasses and freshwater, or are based on fishermen interviews and anecdotic information.


In Cuba manatees are protected under the Environmental Law 81, the Fishery Decree‐Law 164, and the Protected Areas Decree-Law 201. Recently the Ministry of Science Technology and Environment (CITMA) enacted the Resolution 160/2013 that listed manatees as a ‘Species with Special Signification’ for the country. This law also includes other species that need special attention and required sustainable use.

Manatee sighting reported by divers in Punta Frances, Isle of Youth

Manatee sighting reported by divers in Punta Frances,
Isle of Youth

In general the legal framework is solid but its implementation is being jeopardized by the economic situation of the island. Lack of proper resources to enforce the legislation compromise its effectiveness. There is a national group involved with manatee conservation through the integration and collaboration of several institutions around the country, like the University of Havana, National Center for Protected Areas (CNAP) and National Enterprise for the protection of the Flora and Fauna (ENPFF). These institutions work together to elaborate a monitoring system that increases the current knowledge about this population. A key element in this conservation effort is instilling environmental concern in human populations in relation to manatees and other natural components.

The country has put in place a National System of Protected Areas that covers 24.9 % of the marine shelf and the system has been strengthened to a point where marine protected areas are receiving special attention and funding. There are 84 Marine Protected Areas (MPA) in this system, but some of them are not currently approved or lack an administration, and the goal is to be able to protect at least 25% of the island shelf. Management effectiveness of these MPAs is not equal in all of them. Reasons for this include a lack of administration, lack of human resources and lack of proper infrastructure.

The Center for Marine Research, at the University of Havana, is the Cuban lead institution in manatee research. Its goal is to contribute to the recovery of the Cuban manatee population through appropriate management and conservation actions supported by scientific knowledge and community awareness. Some studies currently in place aim to determine mortality, to register manatee sightings around the island (Figure 1) and implement ecological studies. This work is advised and supported by the NGO Sea to Shore Alliance and United States Geological Survey agency in Gainesville (USGS). The research is also possible thanks to the support of Operation Wallacea and the volunteers that come every summer to participate in a research project in the Isle of Youth in order to study manatee relative abundance, habitat use, diet, genetic structure and human impact. After six years of work, recommendations have been made to decision-making authorities dealing with manatee conservation and management. In 2012 we started a programme for captures, health assessment and tagging in order to study patterns of manatee movements and other aspects from their biology.

As one of the main outcomes, this national initiative has helped to set the stage for the implementation of important changes in fishery regulation in Cuba, like the complete eradication of the trawl net fishing in the Cuban platform, activity that was considered an important threat to the manatee population and caused several animal deaths in the north. Some of the research results have been incorporated in the management plans of the protected areas. For instance a monitoring protocol developed by the Center for Marine Research is being implemented in all MPAs throughout Cuba. The results obtained using this protocol will continue to improve the management of manatees and their habitats in Cuban protected areas.

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