In a statement to the Legislative Assembly on 18 January, Environment Minister Charles Clifford said conch fishermen, snorkellers and personal watercraft users should expect some changes to the Wildlife Interaction Zones in the North Sound.
The March 2007 Marine Conservation Law Regulations establishing the Wildlife Interaction Zones in the North Sound, subject to enforcement since June, 2007, were designed to provide a framework for the regulation of water sports activities involving the interaction of divers and snorkellers with marine life.
In particular, the zones address protection of stingrays through controlling the way that people interact with them, protection of the reefs and natural environment within their boundaries, and the licensing of tourist boats entering the areas.
‘As we continue to employ more sustainable practices in the management of our tourism product, we have found the implementation of the Wildlife Interaction Zones to have struck a healthy balance between our tourism-related obligations to improve the management, safety and overall experience of visitors to the North Sound, and our environmental obligations to protect and relieve human induced stress on some of the unique marine life such as stingrays and coral reefs within the zones,’ said the Minister.
He said the creation of the zones is a testament of what can be accomplished by broad consultation, since a number of recommendations made by a stakeholder group representing the watersports industry, the Marine Conservation Board, the Land and Sea Cooperative and the Department of Environment were incorporated into the Regulations.
‘However, as is sometimes the case with new regulations and policies and despite comprehensive consultation, once in operation new issues may arise,’ said the Minister.
‘In this case, stakeholders have identified a few incidental matters and have brought these to the attention of this Ministry.’
The Minister said that the zone which encompass the Sandbar and Coral Gardens has inadvertently included a conch bed traditionally used by local fishermen and tour operators during the open season.
However, because of the wording of the regulation, conch cannot be taken in this area.
‘We will seek to consult with the original stakeholder group and if necessary the Opposition in order to seek a possible re-configuration of the coordinates to the south of this zone that would still protect the Sandbar and Coral Gardens, while allowing fishermen to access a portion of the conch beds in this area,’ said the Minister.
He also noted that the Ministry has learned that zone visitors sometimes stand up on the coral heads while swimming and snorkelling.
‘We must discourage this practice and will seek to amend the regulations in order to make this illegal and enforceable by our Marine Enforcement Officers,’ he said.
The Minister said that a final change may apply to personal watercraft.
‘There are wide concerns about allowing wave runners and other small personal watercraft operated by inexperienced drivers into the zones,’ he said.
‘During the original consultation with the stakeholder group, the licensing of guided tour groups on wave runners and other small personal watercraft to enter the zone was not envisioned. Therefore, we will fully consider the matter and communicate a decision shortly.’
Once the recommendations are brought before Cabinet and the requisite changes are approved, Mr. Clifford will make a further public statement.