Graduate student visits Cuba
to aid in manatee assessments

Jennifer McGee and her team set a net for manatees.

Jennifer McGee and the team she conducted research with in Cuba set a net for manatees.

Jennifer McGee, a doctoral candidate in the college’s Aquatic Animal Health program, recently returned from a week in Cuba, where she assisted in the first-ever manatee health assessment captures conducted in that country.

McGee, whose dissertation research focuses on manatee health, was invited to assist in the assessments by el Centro de Investigaciones Marinas de la Universidad de la Habana. Her work in the project was accepted as partial credit toward her Ph.D.

The purpose of the assessments is to investigate the biology and ecology of manatees in Cuba and in helping to integrate a multi-institutional collaboration for the conservation of manatees in that country, McGee said.

Jamal, a team member, with manatee ribs.

Jamal, a manatee research associate for the Belize Manatee Conservation Project, with manatee ribs found at one of the research/capture sites.

“Very little is known about manatees in Cuba, although it has some of the most extensive and best manatee habitat in the Caribbean,” McGee said.

In 2001, Dr. James “Buddy” Powell, executive director of Sea2Shore Alliance and a courtesy faculty member at the UF CVM, began a long-term initiative to develop and strengthen a manatee research and conservation program in Cuba. Working in collaboration with the University of Havana’s Center for Marine Investigations, the Cuban Enterprise for Flora and Fauna, and under a license from the U.S. Treasury Department, Powell has facilitated surveys in various sections of the island and helped to strengthen manatee research and conservation efforts.

In 2007, Anmari Alvarez Aleman, a University of Havana student, sighted and photographed a Florida manatee with a young calf at a power plant near Havana. This manatee had been first photographed in 1979 by Buddy in Crystal River, Florida and was the first record of a Florida manatee traveling to Cuba.

“It also suggests that there may be some population exchange between the two countries,” McGee said, adding that Anmari, under the supervision of Powell and Dr. Jorge Angulo from the University of Havana, has been conducting an in-depth manatee study on the Isle of Youth off the southwest coast of Cuba. Having now completed her master’s degree, Aleman hopes to continue her work with the manatees in Cuba as a Ph.D. student at UF.

The research trip McGee just returned from focused on the manatees located in waters surrounding the Isle of Youth, where Aleman had conducted previous surveys.

Although Aleman had documented a large amount of manatee sighting data from previous years, the Cuban manatee “is quite elusive, and for good reason,” McGee said, adding that although illegal, manatee hunting in Cuba remains a significant threat to the population’s survival.

“While the number of animals sighted this trip was quite low, making capture attempts unsuccessful, a significant amount of experience was obtained while working with the incredibly dedicated Cuban manatee research crew members,” McGee said. “This hands-on practice in capture, tagging, and sampling techniques proved to be very productive. Combined with the low number of manatee sightings this trip, the crew is now more motivated than ever to catch and tag a Cuban manatee to assess health as well as investigate the movements and distribution of this elusive and endangered animal.”


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