Four tagged stingrays that had been living in a tank at tourist attraction Dolphin Discovery for the past six months were removed from captivity on Monday and placed back in their home in the Sandbar off Grand Cayman.
Cayman Islands Department of Environment staff and handlers from Dolphin Discovery worked together to transfer the four stingrays back to the Sandbar in the North Sound. The two male and two female rays had been tagged as part of a census of the animals in January.
The entire operation lasted about 90 minutes. Handlers at Dolphin Discovery moved the rays one by one from their tank into a water-filled wheelbarrow and wheeled each one to a Department of Environment truck in the nearby carpark. There, the stingrays were transferred into three white plastic tubs on the back of the truck and then driven taken to Morgan’s Harbour where the tubs were emptied into a circular tank erected on a Department of Environment boat. The boat then headed off toward the Sandbar, where the rays were released into the sea shortly before 9.30am.
Director of Environment Gina Ebanks-Petrie said she was happy the stingrays had been released, but was disappointed that six other rays, which had not previously been tagged, were not being freed.
“It went really well,” Ms Ebanks-Petrie said. “Moving the rays from Dolphin Discovery – [Dolphin Discovery staff] did help us get the rays – and the transport went seamlessly.”
She added: “We want the other six to be released as well, but we continue to work with them and hopefully we can get the best result for the rays.”
A visiting marine veterinarian last month reported the presence of the rays at Dolphin Discovery to conservationist Guy Harvey, who alerted the Department of Environment. When DoE staff scanned the 10 rays, they found that four of them – two males and two females – had been tagged in the Sandbar in January as part of a census. When researchers returned to the Sandbar in July to carry out another census, they found just 57 rays – four fewer than in January.
Dolphin Discovery took possession of the four stingrays in March and April when fishermen swapped them for bait at the facility.
The four rays had been held in quarantine away from the six other stingrays for a week to prepare them for their release back into the wild.
The DoE has requested that they be allowed to tag the remaining six rays so that they can monitor if any more rays from the wild are added to the Dolphin Discovery’s collection of the animals, but permission to do so has not been forthcoming.
Carlos Moreno, general manager of Dolphin Discovery, said the rays were safer at the dolphinarium than at the Sandbar.
He cited a recent photograph that has gone viral on the Internet, showing a stingray being held high up out of the water to “photobomb” three women at the Sandbar. “We don’t allow people to do that here,” he said.
“Here the tourists can touch them, but we don’t allow them to kiss the stingrays,” he said, adding that the thousands of tourists who interact with the stingrays and feed them at the Sandbar each week make the stingrays stressed and could be contributing to the decline in their numbers.
A census taken in January found 61 stingrays at the Sandbar. A similar count done in July showed just 57 rays, only five of which were male.
Mr. Harvey, who was on hand at Dolphin Discovery on Monday to observe the release of the rays, said he was concerned that most of the rays at Dolphin Discovery were male, and that the number of males at the Sandbar, according to the recent surveys, is low.
“We need those males back in the wild population to boost the reproductive capacity,” Mr. Harvey said. “Whether or not they came from the Sandbar is immaterial, the fact is we have a very low population of males right now and how can you keep it going if you don’t have a better balanced sex ratio.”
Five of the six stingrays remaining at Dolphin Discovery are male. Mr. Moreno suggested that two males rays could be swapped for two females. Mr. Moreno said those six rays had been caught in waters near West Bay in Grand Cayman. “We have not broken any law. Those were taken from here,” said Mr. Moreno, pointing to the water outside the facility.
He said the stingrays could reproduce at Dolphin Discovery and their offspring could be released.
The only legislation that protects stingrays is the Marine Conservation Law, but that applies only if a stingray is taken from a protected zone, such as a Wildlife Interaction Zone. The Sandbar and Stingray City are Wildlife Interaction Zones. Although the four released stingrays had been tagged at the Sandbar, there is no evidence that the rays were taken from that protected area.
The National Conservation Bill, which is still awaiting passage through the Legislative Assembly, would offer more protection to the animals, but that legislation has been delayed for more than a decade.
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