The Cayman Islands Department of Environment may have received some insight into the mystery of the declining population of stingrays at the Sandbar in Grand Cayman after finding tagged rays in captivity at Dolphin Discovery.
Staff from the Department of Environment, alerted by a visiting vet, checked 10 stingrays at the dolphin attraction in West Bay, and found two males and two females that had been tagged at the Sandbar as part of a stingray census earlier this year.
Dolphin Discovery management has agreed to release the four tagged rays, but not the other six.
Tim Austin, deputy director of the Department of Environment, said that it could not be established if any laws had been broken in the capturing of the stingrays.
“Stingrays have no legal protection as a species under the current Marine Conservation Law – the draft National Conservation Law proposes protection for all rays in the Cayman Islands – and so Dolphin Discovery holding the rays or taking them by any other legal means out of an area not included in the marine protected area system is not an offence. However, it is an offence to take rays from the Sandbar,” Mr. Austin said.
The Sandbar is a designated wildlife interaction zone. It is also illegal to take any species from marine parks or designated environmental zones.
“Unfortunately, we cannot prove that these rays were captured within any of these zones, so no legal action is being proposed,” Mr. Austin said.
Swapped for bait
According to management at Dolphin Discovery, local fisherman swapped the stingrays for bait – leftover fish from the dolphin feedings.
Dolphin Discovery general manager Carlos Moreno said the company had taken the stingrays because the animals would otherwise have been killed by the fishermen and used as bait.
He said he first realised only a week ago that the four stingrays, who fishermen had brought to Dolphin Discovery in March or April this year, were tagged after Department of Environment staff scanned them.
The other six untagged stingrays had been at Dolphin Discovery for the past three years, he said, adding that fishermen had caught them in the water off the West Bay facility.
Mr. Moreno said he had seen fishermen bring those rays ashore and they told him they were going to cut up the rays to use as bait. “I asked them not to kill the rays. I said ‘we’ll give you some of our fish that are left over from the dolphins, use that as bait and you don’t have to kill them’,” he said.
Since then, other fishermen have brought rays to Dolphin Discovery, with the latest tagged ones being delivered in coolers earlier this year.
Asked why he did not release the captured stingrays into the sea after the fishermen handed them over, Mr. Moreno said many tourists do not get an opportunity to visit the Sandbar or Stingray City, so when they visit the dolphin attraction, they also get a chance to see the stingrays.
Marine conservationist Guy Harvey, who invited a team of scientists to carry out health checks and a census of the stingrays at the Sandbar earlier this year, explained that in the past local fishermen had used rays as bait, but anyone doing so today “would be called crazy as everyone knows how valuable each ray is to the country’s economy”.
“This is why I have a tough time believing that fishermen willingly trade stingrays for bait with Dolphin Discovery personnel, knowing what damage they are doing to the economy,” Mr. Harvey said.
During the recent stingray census and earlier ones, several stingrays had been found with hooks and fishing line, which the researchers removed. “Most rays will survive the trauma of being caught on hooks,” Mr. Harvey said.
He called on the government to introduce the long-delayed National Conservation Law to prevent a repeat of local wildlife being captured. “If successive administrations would do the right thing and better protect our fragile environment by passing the NCL, this would not be an issue, there would be no gray area and we would all enjoy the stingrays where they belong, which is in their environment and at the designated interactive sites,” Mr. Harvey said.
He added: “The right thing for Dolphin Discovery to do is to release all the rays and not offer any sort of incentive for the stupidity that is currently occurring.”
All four of the stingrays were tagged at the Sandbar on 6 January this year in a survey of the stingrays, carried out the team from the Guy Harvey Institute, the DoE, Nova Southeastern University, University of Rhode Island and Georgia Aquarium. The survey showed that the numbers of stingrays at the Sandbar were dropping. Over three days in July, researchers counted 57 stingrays at the Sandbar, of which only five were male, down from 61 in January this year – four fewer than the earlier survey. In 2008, and in earlier censuses dating back to 2002, researchers had found about 100 stingrays at the site.
“The DOE is disappointed to learn that Dolphin Discovery has decided to keep wild stingrays in captivity; given the national importance of the Stingray City/Sandbar attractions, this would seem irresponsible. The DOE is aware of a recent increase in incidences of fishing injuries to rays at the Sandbar and whether this is related to Dolphin Discovery’s effort to secure rays for its facility is unknown, but there seems to be a strong coincidence,” Mr. Austin said.
“We are also aware that some fishermen believe there is a ‘bounty’ on stingrays and that this may have resulted in a targeted effort to catch them, which could have disastrous consequences for the local ray population,” he added.
Mr. Harvey agreed that fisherman capturing stingrays could be a factor in the declining numbers of stingrays at the Sandbar, but said while some people thought sharks could be behind the decrease, since the Cayman Islands had a low shark population, it did not seem likely that sharks were causing the decline. However, the lone male dolphin, Stinky, may also be impacting the stingray population, said Mr. Harvey, who heard an eyewitness account of the dolphin attacking and eating a spotted eagle ray, although there was no evidence of the dolphin consuming a stingray.
The four tagged stingrays at Dolphin Discovery will be quarantined and if they are disease free and healthy enough, the Department of Environment will release them at the Sandbar in a week.
Mr. Austin said the department had also asked the Dolphin Discovery owners to release the other six rays, but they were not prepared to do so.
Under the Marine Conservation Law, taking a ray from a protected marine zone carries a maximum penalty of $500,000 fine and/or one year in prison, although there is yet to be a case of this brought before the courts.