The Professor Speaks
The following excerpt was taken from an article written by Professor Ivan Goodbody (Professor emeritus, Department of Zoology, University of the West Indies) 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 their population 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.