Cayman reefs in trouble

The Marine Conservation Board is reminding residents who do not possess Caymanian status, or who are on work permit, that a license is required if they wish to fish from shore for consumption.

Catch-and-release sport fishing for game fish such as Tarpon, Bonefish, Permit etc. does not require a license.

The public is also reminded that the taking of any marine species of fish less than eight inches in length is illegal anywhere and by any means in Cayman waters. This does not apply baitfish species such as Fry, Anchovy, Sprat, or Goggle Eye.

Those persons who possess fish pots are further reminded to follow construction specifications of the traps required by law. Further information can be obtained from the Department of Environment offices at the Marco Giglioli Building on North Sound Road. (Ph. 949-8469)

As there still seems to be some controversy over the need for such restrictions, the board would like to take this opportunity to clarify this issue. Quite simply, our reef fisheries now exist at a fragile balance, which can be irreversibly compromised if not carefully managed.

The diversity, adaptations, and complex interactions of coral reef species means that coral reef ecosystems are inherently more vulnerable to overuse than are other marine ecosystems.

This has long been a contentious issue with Caymanians, as traditionally, we did not harvest juveniles or certain species of fish.

Juveniles and species traditionally called trash fish by locals are low in the food chain, but crucial to other species higher up.

Also, the taking of the smaller fish of any species, will lead to growth over-fishing, which means to say, those fish are not allowed to grow to maturity, reproduce, and thereby contribute to the replenishment of future generations (this goes pretty much for any fisheries resource, whether fish, conch, lobster, turtle etc). On the other hand, if too many big breeding fish are caught, then recruitment over fishing will occur, meaning that there will be no egg production to produce new, young recruits into the population.

Capturing large quantities of a particular species or type of fish, presents a major potential for overexploitation, and this can lead to depletion of certain keystone species with the effect of altering the ecology of the entire reef community.

For example, herbivorous fish such as surgeonfish and parrot fish are often caught in entire schools. These fish are a critical component to the reef, because they control algal overgrowth of coral which inhibits settlement and growth of new coral larvae. The excessive removal of these fish has already led to algal overgrowth and the smothering of reefs in the Caribbean.

The removal of top predators such as large groupers or snappers, can cause an unusually large abundance of preys at lower levels with cascading and feedback effects on the food chain and species composition.

Concern of over-fishing has resulted in many studies, and as far back as the early 1970s, the effect of removing large numbers of fish on natural reef populations was well documented. Even the earlier studies showed that as much as 70 per cent of all species surveyed were significantly reduced by harvesting.

More recent surveys of reefs worldwide found that many species of high commercial value were absent, or present in very low numbers, in almost all the reefs surveyed.

Coral reefs are in serious trouble worldwide and one of the primary reasons is overexploitation of resources for subsistence and commercial fishing.

Human impacts are also occurring through the use of fisheries as luxury items. There has already been widespread ecosystem changes documented in the Caribbean which are of special concern to the long-term status of coral reef fish communities, and continued equal rates of loss over long periods will not allow the historical coral reef community structure to be sustained.

A major management goal therefore is ensuring continued sustainability of limited resources and traditional activities under rapidly increasing human population growth and exploitation of the reef fisheries.

The Cayman Islands must decide at what level it can use its fisheries, taking into account the economic and social importance of the resource, its capacity to sustain harvests, and the effects of harvesting on the activities of other reef users.

While in many places, the financial resources to actively manage coral reefs and enforce laws against destructive fishing practices are very limited, the Cayman Islands were fortunate enough to have the foresight safe guard our economy and quality of life against the loss of these inherently valuable resources.

It is critical that the total volume of organisms lost from the reefs does not exceed the natural rate of replacement. While our marine parks do act to buffer against diminishing fish populations, the very narrow island shelf of the Cayman Islands means they are not big enough or productive enough, to do the job alone. As such our shelf area can only support a limited amount of recreational fisheries for food and sport.

We have a responsibility to ensure the preservation of fish in the wild, and their natural environment. If we all work together, we can continue to have healthy populations of fish and corals as usable resources for present and future generations. Hence the need for our laws in creating careful management measures in addressing the many aspects of reef health through out Cayman waters to ensure their sustainable use.

The Marine Conservation Board