Kittiwake monitoring heralded

The new Cayman site of the Kittiwake is being surveyed by environmental experts in order to establish a multi- decade sea-life monitoring project.

The former USS warship will, when it is sunk off the northern end of Seven Mile beach near the Sand Chute site, become a tourist and diving attraction. In addition, the vessel will serve as a centre for highly detailed environmental research, said Simon Dixon, who is conducting the fish and reef census prior to the sinking. He is also putting things in place for the continued monitoring.

“It’s very, very exciting and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get involved in the sinking of such a large vessel. Other people around the world are conducting experiments on wrecks such as those in the Florida Keys but they tend to be controlled by larger corporations,” he said.

Simon, who holds a degree in marine biology, came to work for Divetech three years ago. Divetech’s Nancy Easterbrook is the project leader for the Kittiwake sinking, and said from the outset, Mr. Dixon’s research skills and background in marine biology were clearly going to be put to good use. The PADI-MSDT instructor has spent nine years working worldwide as a dive instructor while volunteering for research stations in Indonesia and Florida to build up his experience base.

Population counts

The survey looks at populations of fish and records numbers at specific sites in order to cast light on a debate regarding attraction and production.

“Obviously the long-term effects will be that populations will increase because we are giving them new habitats; however, at the beginning it will be very interesting to see the movement. It’s a 251-foot vessel being sunk close to the reef, which might mean of course some other fish might [initially] be moving away from the area while there are boats and everything else driving all around.

“The data we are gathering right now are baseline data so we have something to compare to; looking at the reefs, counting fish populations at various points around the deck site to see which species in which numbers are there, then obviously when the Kittiwake goes in, we will continue those counts on the surrounding reefs and on the boat to see what the difference is,” said the underwater expert.

The study’s objectives include the acquisition of a multi- seasonal portrait of the fish in the area, a comparison between the new vessel-reef and the adjacent natural reefs, an examination of the species and life stage-specific recruitment dynamics of vessel-reefs, a comparison of population data between the natural reefs near the Kittiwake and others within the Cayman Islands, and monitoring the health of the corals surrounding the site and, eventually, on the Kittiwake itself.

The counting will be done along a series of transect lines that split up the site into different areas, which will be surveyed on a regular basis. Following the sinking, there will be a period of settling allowed and then surveys and photographs will be taken every three months, then possibly every year, said Mr. Dixon.

Lionfish threat

The United States alone has more than 500 vessel-reefs, but to date few studies have been conducted on their impact on their environments.

It is thought, also, that the recording of the populations at the Kittiwake site will enable researchers to monitor invasive species such as the rapacious predator the red lionfish, which is not indigenous to Cayman waters and is considered one of the biggest threats to the ecosystem.

“That’s hands down the most serious problem facing the islands for a long time, and if nothing is done about it, there will be nothing here; [they will eat] all the grazing fish that munch on the algae such as parrot fish that encourage fresh coral growth will go. Once they have, algae will bloom and smother the coral and eventually it’ll be lionfish and bare rock. The lionfish will eat themselves out of house and home and everything will end up covered in algae. Look at Bahamas; they’ve done absolutely nothing, and when you go diving, all you see is lionfish. They go out hunting and they bring back thousands.

“It’s down to us. As human beings, one of the things we do best is wipe out other species – it’s the truth – we are very good at it. The lionfish are fantastically good to eat. They taste awesome, very similar to grouper, so it’s also an ideal answer to the grouper programme, too,” said Mr. Dixon, who added that controlling the problem depends on being innovative, including offering the dish at local restaurants.

Marine life

While setting up and initialising the project has been an involved project, Mr. Dixon’s immediate future involves relocation. The marine biologist is going to further his studies at Manchester University in the UK with a Master’s of Arts in Conservation Biology and Zoo Studies, where he will look specifically into conservation aspects of the Kittiwake, as well as rehabilitation of endangered animals. However, the Kittiwake project is ongoing and so is the data-gathering.

“The beauty about the Kittiwake project is that it will run itself as long as there are people to collect data, and I can still process it.

“The marine life is unbelievable in and around the coastline and so close to shore; some of the areas that are massively important are Barkers Beach and the North Sound, which provide a nursery for every type of organism you can think of. Every type of shark will be travelling around to feed on the rays, giving birth in the mangroves, and just inside the barrier reef at Barkers, it’s full of juvenile eels, fish, crabs. Those areas are vital to the existence of the [sea life] that brings people back to Cayman every year.”

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