Conservationists are seeking to
nearly double the size of protected marine zones in Cayman.
Through the UK’s Department of
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Cayman has received a $344,000 Darwin
Initiative grant for the purpose of researching and protecting the Islands’
The research project, supported in
kind with resources and manpower by The Nature Conservancy in the US, the
School of Ocean Sciences at Bangor University in Wales and Cayman’s Department
of Environment, is set to last three years and will cost about $1 million.
Protected marine zones have existed
in Cayman since April 1986 and were the first such marine parks in the
Caribbean. They are monitored and managed by the Department of Environment.
“Cayman Islands’ marine parks are
considered regionally and internationally to be a success story,” said Director
of Environment Gina Ebanks-Petrie.
Expanding the marine parks would
mean amending the Marine Conservation Law, but Ms Ebanks-Petrie said she hoped
that there was enough public support and understanding about growing
conservation issues to enable those amendments to go through. “We’re going to
push for it, we’re hopeful we can get it,” she said.
Protection of mangroves, sea grass
beds and juvenile fish breeding areas along the coast would be provided under
the National Conservation Bill, which is being reviewed.
Speaking at a press briefing to
announce the launch of the Darwin Initiative Project, John Turner, senior
lecturer at Bangor University’s School of Ocean Sciences, said that times have
changed significantly over the 25 years that Cayman’s reefs have been protected
and that there are new challenges, both natural and man-made, that are
affecting the reefs.
“Over this time, global, regional
and local changes have occurred, threatening biodiversity and the livelihoods
of island nations and conservation initiatives need to keep apace,” he said.
Global threats to coral reefs that
were not taken into account when creating marine parks in Cayman 25 years ago
include increased sea temperatures, coral bleaching and climate change impacts
such as storm frequency, rising sea levels and ocean acidification.
On a regional level, coral and
urchin disease, widespread over-fishing and reduced water quality from
land-based pollution are degrading the Caribbean, Mr. Turner said, while locally,
the resident population has doubled, tourist numbers have increased four-fold
and coastal development has accelerated.
Ms Ebanks-Petrie said that a
quarter of a century ago, when conservationists were looking at protecting the
coral reefs, what they were trying to protect against were over-fishing and
boat anchoring damage.
“There are things happening now
that were never imagined 25 years ago,” said John Byrne, project manager from
The Nature Conservancy, whose organisation will provide technical assistance on
While the task of protecting and
conserving the ocean’s reefs are daunting in the wake of these global, regional
and local threats, the healthier Cayman can keep its reefs, the more likely it
is that they can withstand those threats, she said.
Losing the reefs would have a major
environmental and economic impact, Mr. Turner warned. “If these systems lack
resilience, then economic losses incur as property and critical infrastructure
become insecure, fish catches reduce, other species and habitats such as
turtles, seabirds, sea grasses and mangroves decline, and tourism revenue is
lost,” he said in his presentation.
He explained that 17 per cent of
the narrow shelf area around Cayman is protected, but this needs to be expanded
to neighbouring habitats, but before this can be done, extensive study and
research needs to be carried out.
Among the aims of the Darwin
Initiative project are to assess the level of resilience of reefs around Grand
Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman; to assess habitats in protected areas,
using habitat mapping conducted during a previous Darwin Initiative project
called In Ivan’s Wake; to quantify reserve effects of protected zones and their
ability to spill over fish and juvenile organisms into non-protected areas; and
to quantify the impact of recreational, commercial and illegal fishing.
It ultimately intends to use the
scientific data gathered, along with Marine Protected Area planning tools, to
produce options for an enhanced Marine Protected Area system involving
interested parties and full public consultation.
“The long-term benefits from
resilient reefs will be protection of biodiversity, people, property and
coasts, enhancing sustainable use by residents and visitors, and therefore
development of the economy,” Mr. Turner said.
Mr. Byrne explained that one of the
main focuses would be on conserving the biodiversity of the reefs. Despite
damage from coral bleaching, which is now being seen annually rather than every
10 years in the past, and disease, there remains a lot of biodiversity and
resilience in Caribbean waters, Mr. Byrne said, and corals worldwide are
showing they have the ability to recover.
Small island nations in the
Caribbean are at the forefront of marine and reef protection, he said. “They
are challenging neighbouring countries to join in,” he said.
The Department of Environment has
been monitoring the state of Cayman’s coral reefs for 14 years and this project
will work hand in hand with the research the DoE has carried out. The department
will hire a dedicated research assistant for the project.
The Darwin Initiative assists
countries that are rich in biodiversity but poor in financial resources to meet
their objectives under one or more of the three major biodiversity Conventions:
the Convention on Biological Diversity; the Convention on International Trade
in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna; and the Convention on the
Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, through the funding of
collaborative projects which draw on UK biodiversity expertise.
Since 1992, £79,652,500 (about
CI$103 million) in Darwin Initiative grants have been invested in 728 projects
in 156 countries.