The following excerpt
was taken from an article written by Professor Ivan Goodbody
in the December 1994 edtition of 'The Jamaica Naturalist'
(Vol. 4). It is re-printed here with his permission.
The Jamaican manatee was
once prevalent in the Jamaican waters. Phillip Gosse (1851)
reports that "I had the pleasure of breakfasting on manatee
steaks which had delicious flavour, without any oiliness."
Then he goes on to describe a scene at Black River: "The
manatees were playing at the surface of the water at the river
mouth, hardly a gun shot from the bridge. They continued frolicking
for a considerable time, yet no-one cared to pursue them."
It is not known how many
manatees there were at the time, but today there are only about
one hundred left in Jamaica, and only about three thousand left
in the entire Caribbean (NRCA 1994). However, they are so secretive
that it is difficult to monitor the population properly. One
may ask, "Why should we bother to preserve the manatees?"
We get the answer from Paul Ehrlich's statement which declares,
"Diversity of life is like rivets (bolts) in an airplane
- each species plays a small but significant role. Loss of each
rivet (bolt) weakens the whole by a small amount until it loses
airworthiness and crashes."
Manatees have a very slow
population turn over, so when they are killed, it takes a long
time for them to produce more offspring to make up for the loss.
Secondly, vegetation is their primary food source and in our
environment that means primarily turtle grass. A fully grown
manatee may consume as much as 400 kilogrammes of grass per
day. Manatees are particularly useful in helping to recycle
nutrients locked up in seagrasses. They are the 'lawn mowers'
of seagrass beds ingesting and digesting the leaves.
Since Phillip Gosse's encounter
with the manatees, we have reduced the available amount of seagrasses,
and we have reduced the numbers of several key species in seagrass
habitats - manatees, turtles, herbivorous fish and conch. It
is quite possible that we have so reduced the grass beds that
now they can only sustain less than two hundred manatees. If
that is the case perhaps the emphasis needs to be more on preserving
the food supply than concentrating on the animal itself.