A ban on lifting stingrays from the water is one of many new draft regulations aimed at protecting the wild stingray populations that interact with tourists in areas of the North Sound.
These Sandbar/Stingray City Regulations were outlined by Director of the Department of Environment Gina Ebanks-Petrie at the annual Tourism Conference Friday.
Stingrays are also to be designated as a protected species and feeding them is to be limited. Fishing or removing any marine life from the area, the wearing of footwear close to rays and the reef and anchoring boats over the top of the sandbar and shallow coral areas will be prohibited under the proposed regulations.
She noted that the new regulations will also include a provision whereby a new stingray feeding site will be allowed on smaller and deeper sand bars to the South East of the current interaction site, provided that no stingray interaction sites will be established at any other location in the Cayman Islands.
DoE’s recommendation, she said, is that until they know in a much clearer way what the effects of feeding the rays in the current interaction areas are, the DoE would not recommend the establishment of interaction sites elsewhere in the Cayman Islands.
A student from Simon Fraser University in Canada has been looking at the health of the stingrays at the North Sound interaction areas and some of the findings appear disturbing, said Mrs. Ebanks-Petrie.
The rays seem to be changing in terms of their fatty acid composition because of an exclusively squid diet. Also, she said, when a population breeds in one area and in excess of what the area can support then inbreeding and genetics come into it.
This is why they are not recommending any more wildlife interaction zones be set up outside of the current ones, because these current areas need to be properly managed.
The proposed new regulations include many new rules for what are now to be called Wildlife Interaction Zones in the North Sound. The WIZ sites, encompassing the Sandbar and Deep Stingray City in the North Sound, were formerly known as Special Management Areas.
The regulations are currently in draft form and are undergoing a process of review both within and outside of government. The amendment to the Marine Conservation Law that would enable the creation of the Wildlife Interaction Zones has to go to the Legislative Assembly as a White Paper and then be passed by the Cabinet.
Including the WIZs and the regulations as part of this law means that the penalties will be as already prescribed, which is a fine up to a maximum of $5,000 and/or up to one year in prison.
For tourist vessels/commercial vessels visiting the Wildlife Interaction Zones with paying passengers there will be a requirement for the operators to be licensed and for them to meet specific restrictions with respect to the time they can visit. Numbers at the stingray interaction sites at the sandbar at any one time will be restricted to 1,500 people, 20 boats and 100 people per boat.
A breach of these restrictions will mean that the license will be revoked and any further violation is now a breach of the Marine Conservation Law and subject to the corresponding penalties.
There is to be no commercial activity on the sandbar after 2pm on weekends or after 3pm on public holidays, thus freeing it up for residents’ use.
Mrs. Ebanks-Petrie noted that early concerns primarily centred on the effects of feeding (and overfeeding) the stingrays. These began to surface in the early 1990s.
In particular the DoE began to become increasingly concerned about the impact of excess food on the fecundity, genetic diversity and general health of the rays and the consequences for the ecology of the North Sound in general. Safety concerns also began to emerge.
The new regulations are ultimately the result of these early concerns which brought about a stakeholder committee being set up in 2003. This followed the immense growth of cruise visitors, trips to the sandbar and subsequently negative feedback from guests and concern for the environment from watersports operators.
Following a stakeholder consultation with various involved parties, including the CITA Watersports Committee, the Land and Sea Co-Op, the Marine Conservation Board, the Ministry and Department of Tourism, there were five main areas identified.
Each of these areas has been addressed in the new regulations: The ecological health of the stingray population and the North Sound in general; the increasing number of negative complaints from tourists about the Sandbar experience (including safety and overcrowding); adequate access to and use of area by residents; the lack of regulatory framework to address issues; the creation of additional sting ray interaction sites.