The Cayman Islands Tourism Association’s water sports sector is calling for a change to Cayman’s laws to better protect wild stingrays.
The association has released a statement urging the government to expand the protection of the animals beyond the existing protected zones of Stingray City and Stingray Sandbar, which are designated Wildlife Interaction Zones in Grand Cayman.
The call from Cayman’s tourism body came a few days after it was revealed that Dolphin Discovery in West Bay was housing four stingrays that had been tagged at the Sandbar and delivered to the dolphinarium by fishermen who had caught them. The four stingrays were among 61 counted and tagged in the Sandbar in January. When scientists returned to do another count of the stingrays in July, they found 57 of the rays at the popular tourist site.
In previous censuses in the area, researchers had found more than 100.
“Over the last three years, water sports operators have seen an alarming reduction in the populations of southern stingrays at both Stingray City and Stingray Sandbar,” the statement released Tuesday from the Cayman Islands Tourism Association read.
“A recent survey of the stingray population by biologists confirms this observation. CITA feels that, in light of this documented decline of stingray numbers, new regulations to the marine conservation law must be added to include southern stingrays as protected species.”
The stingrays found at Dolphin Discovery may have been tagged at the Sandbar, but since there was no way of proving where the fishermen removed the rays from the water, no legal action could be taken. It is legal to take stingrays outside of protected marine zones, which under the Marine Conservation Law includes wildlife interactive zones, marine parks or designated environmental zones.
The tourism association pointed out that the southern stingrays that frequent the Sandbar and Stingray City are among the most well-known images associated with the Cayman Islands.
“In fact, because of its success, many competing destinations around the globe have tried to copy Stingray City.
CITA’s water sports members feel that if these stingrays are not protected, the Cayman Islands stand to lose its biggest national tourism asset. Thousands of Caymanian jobs and hundreds of businesses depend on a healthy and reproductive population of southern stingrays,” the statement read.
Stingrays have been protected within wildlife interaction zones since 2007, but Cayman Islands Tourism Association’s water sports operators say this protection must be expanded. The association’s statement continued that it was also important to conduct additional research on the southern stingrays to have a greater understanding of their health and to implement routine monitoring of nourishment and reproduction.
During three days in July, personnel from the Guy Harvey Research Institute in collaboration with the Cayman Islands Department of Environment, along with three veterinarians from the Georgia Aquarium, researched and analysed the health of the stingrays. This was done at the same time as the latest census of the rays.
Million dollar rays
The Cayman Islands Tourism Association estimates that gross revenues from Stingray City and Stingray Sandbar tours by operators exceeds US$30 million a year, not including revenues generated by other activities by the same visitors.
The statement from the association said many of the stingrays in the wildlife interaction zone had been “entertaining” visitors and locals for many years and therefore can be considered “million dollar rays”.
Following the discovery of the tagged rays in Dolphin Discovery, the Department of Environment pointed out that the draft National Conservation Bill, which continues to languish without being passed into law after several years of drafting and redrafting, offers protection to all rays in the Cayman Islands.
According to the statement from CITA, the tourism association supports the adoption of “the long-debated and long-awaited National Conservation Law and immediately calls on government to enact legislation to protect southern stingrays”.
“Many local indigenous creatures – both land and sea – need protection, and CITA insists that the proper laws must be enacted and enforced to protect the fragile and important life forms that make Cayman their home,” the statement read.
Releasing the rays
Dolphin Discovery agreed to release two male and two female stingrays, after Department of Environment staff scanned the animals and found tags on them. The Department of Environment also scanned the six other stingrays at the facility, but found no tags. The government agency said Dolphin Discovery had no plans to release those six stingrays.
A vet, visiting Cayman during a marine veterinary conference earlier this month, alerted conservationist Guy Harvey to the presence of the stingrays at the dolphinarium, and he, in turn, got in touch with the Department of Environment about it.
Dolphin Discovery general manager told the Caymanian Compass that fishermen had planned to use the stingrays as bait and the dolphinarium had saved the rays by swapping them for fish leftover from dolphin feedings, so the fishermen could use that fish as bait instead.
Tim Austin, deputy director of the Department of Environment, said staff from the department, accompanied by Mr. Harvey, re-scanned the rays at Dolphin Discovery in a more methodical approach and confirmed that only four of the rays have electronic tags.
“This does not mean that the other remaining animals did not come from Stingray City or the Sandbar as not all the animals have tags,” Mr. Austin said.
The four tagged rays have been separated from the other six stingrays, which include five males and a young female, and are being held in a quarantine tank until the Department of Environment can arrange to release them at the Sandbar.
“The facility owners refused to allow us to electronically tag the remaining rays both for scientific purposes and as a means of tracking new additions to the collection. We are continuing to press for the release of the remaining rays back to the wild,” Mr. Austin said.
He said the Department of Environment continued to maintain that protection for rays is needed but that the draft National Conservation Law is the mechanism to do so and “not continually tweaking an already complicated and outdated piece of legislation that is the Marine Conservation Law”.