Divers, fishers and lovers of the sea around the Cayman Islands can look forward to more marine protection in the future.
But this time the protected areas will be assigned based on science instead of homegrown knowledge if the recommendations receive approval from lawmakers.
The Department of Environment is making the proposed changes on the 25th anniversary of the creation of marine protected areas in Cayman, with the suggestions being based on extensive research conducted by the department in association with Bangor University, supported by funding the department received through a Darwin Initiative grant.
Although some boundaries will be shifted and some new protected areas will be created, much of the proposed changes revolve around increased protection for areas already receiving some form of protection under the existing marine protected areas designations.
“This really is about trying to ensure that we have vibrant and healthy marine communities in the future, because we’ve learned from the work we’ve done that things are not good and that they really have gone downhill over the last 25 years despite the presence of marine protected areas, so we now have to step up and really take heed of what the information is telling us,” said Gina Ebanks-Petrie, director of the Cayman Islands Department of Environment.
In addition to the expansion of protected areas, the proposed changes will also include the establishment of no dive zones that will be open to fishing, designated line-fishing zones that are often no dive zones, and marine reserves that establish no-take zones from shore to a depth of 200 feet. There will also be enhanced protection for groupers.
Since the parks were established, a number of new pressures have come to bear on the marine environment, from greater local issues including increase population, tourism and fishing pressures to regional and global phenomena such as the invasive lionfish, ocean acidification, rising ocean temperatures and increased storm intensity all impacting on the health of Cayman’s reefs.
According to the department’s research, about 17,400 reef fish are reportedly targeted per month by the 342 fishers interviewed during the study.
“We’re looking at fishing pressure as one of the key areas. When parks were initially established that wasn’t high on the agenda, it was lobsters and conchs, and the parks were put in the right places for those. Moving forward marine fish and habitat protection is the focus, and that is the key area people will benefit from. The idea is that although you can’t fish in those areas, there will be better fishing opportunities in other areas,” said Tim Austin, deputy director of the Department of Environment.
According to international recommendations, at least 40 per cent to 50 per cent of each marine habitat needs to be protected within no take reserves spread around the islands and including critical areas such as spawning sites and nurseries. It is also vital that the reserves be permanently protected, with seasonal closures in addition to the establishment of reserves in order to ensure that species have the opportunity to reproduce.
According to Ms Ebanks-Petrie, the establishment of the existing parks 25 years ago has in general done a lot to help protect Cayman’s marine resources, but that new challenges and new knowledge prompted a rethink of strategies.
“The parks were really laid out 25 years ago on the basis of local knowledge. We got together a really broad-based committee of people that included a lot of water sports operators, people with local knowledge about the marine environment and used everybody’s knowledge,” she said.
However, at the time, the Department of Environment did not exist, so there was no extensive scientific knowledge to draw on. In spite of this, the protected areas have in general succeeded.
“I have to say that certainly in terms of Grand Cayman and Little Cayman we did a good job. Cayman Brac we had some issues. Not every area in Grand Cayman was probably the optimal area, but by and large the areas that were protected worked really well,” said Ms Ebanks-Petrie.
According to Croy McCoy of the Department of Environment, the situation in Cayman Brac was the reverse of what was seen in Grand Cayman and Little Cayman in that the fish populations and coral cover outside the protected areas were better than inside the protected areas. He said that this was due to the original placement of the areas, which again relied on local knowledge.
“What went wrong goes back to placement, in fact that they dealt with the current information that was available back then, as there was no scientific basis for it. It was basically ‘Take this area, we don’t use it’ rather than giving up the really healthy areas,” he said.
The department will host a series of public information meetings on the proposed changes to the protected areas, during which they will be soliciting feedback and suggestions.
The first meeting will take place on 23 October in George Town at the Elmslie Church Hall, followed by North Side on 24 October at the North Side Civic Centre, East End on 25 October at the East End Civic Centre, Cayman Brac on 29 October at the Aston Rutty Centre, Little Cayman on 30 October in the Grouper Room at Little Cayman Beach Resort, West Bay on 5 November in the foyer of the Turtle Farm and Bodden Town on 6 November at the Bodden Town Civic Centre.
Staff from the department will be at the venues from 11am to 10pm on the day of the meeting to discuss the proposals, with a verbal presentation at 7pm on each date.