The Department of the Environment recently reported on the progress made through its latest Darwin Initiative project.
The research, conducted in association with Bangor University in the UK and The Nature Conservancy, has been looking into the effectiveness of the marine protected areas system in Cayman. The project comes 25 years after the establishment of Cayman’s marine parks, and aims to see whether the existing parks are effective at protecting Cayman’s marine habitats and resources.
“What we really hope to do is undertake a number of assessments that will help us better understand the way marine protected areas work and to also help us understand and quantify where possible the current level of threat to our marine environment, so that we can really begin to understand whether we have systems that are optimally configured to meet current and future threats,” said Gina Ebanks-Petrie, director of the Department of Environment.
According to Ms Ebanks-Petrie, the threats to Cayman’s marine environment were not the same 25 years ago and the responses that were devised back then in terms of putting marine protected systems in place were geared to the threats that existed and those they could see down the pipeline.
“Some issues we obviously couldn’t predict and it’s really those things we’re trying to get a handle on and see how our protected areas could be best positioned to meet these future threats,” she said.
According to John Turner, the project leader from Bangor University, the first year and a half of the project involved a lot of field work to gather data on the resilience of the reef environment.
“This requires quite a comprehensive survey around all three islands, and the permanent sites used for these surveys were developed by the team at the Department of Environment some years ago and we are continuing to use these same sites so we can compare over time the changes that are occurring. We have somewhere in the region of 60 sites – deep water, shallow water, inside of protected areas, outside of protected areas, on north, south, west, sometimes eastern coasts so we are addressing all sorts of factors,” Mr. Turner said.
Apart from looking at the health of the coral reefs, research was also conducted into fish biomass.
“We looked at the amount of fish actually found within marine protected areas compared with the amount of fish found at sites as you move further away from the protected areas. This is essentially being done to see if the marine protected areas protect the fish, allow them to reproduce, and then because there are new fish in those areas, they essentially overspill, they leak fish into the surrounding waters and those fish will move on to further reefs that are being fished,” Mr. Turner said.
He said the results of these assessments seem to show there is indeed an overspill effect present, which would indicate the marine protected areas are working.
According to Croy McCoy, senior research officer with the department, the changes in the nature of the threats faced by the marine protected areas are also influencing their efficiency.
“Initially the marine protected areas were designed to counter the threat of development, mainly in Grand Cayman on the west side and in Little Cayman for the purpose of the uniqueness of the Bloody Bay and Jackson Point marine park. Cayman Brac is a little bit of an odd one in the sense that there was not a whole lot of data collected as to placement and that is also showing up in the data that we are collecting, that there is a possibility that it might be in the wrong place, so it could be better situated to serve the purpose,” he said.
Ms Ebanks-Petrie said the data collected through the current research will allow for the fine tuning of the current marine protected areas, saying that what the research should deliver is a “robust and comprehensive way to look at the placement of marine parks and the goals that we have for the marine parks now and in the future.”
According to international standards, the ideal would be to have at least 30 per cent of marine areas protected. At the moment, some 16.7 per cent of the shelf in Cayman is protected.
“The shelf is a very small part of the ocean environment, but it is extremely important to the people on the Island. The evidence that we have already suggests that in most places that protection does seem to be working,” Mr. Turner said.
According to Tim Austin, assistant director at the Department of Environment, the next step in the process will involve gauging public opinion.
“We will engage the public in this whole process,” he said. “The marine protected areas are important for the creatures that use them, but ultimately they are important for the Cayman Islands and we need to know what people feel about the parks, and the public opinion before we move forward. We will be using focus groups looking at specific stakeholder groups to gauge their opinions; we will also be moving through community groups and ultimately district groups all with the aim of getting people’s opinions in how the parks are and how they might be in the future if they do indeed need improving.”