The Department of Environment has taken to the road to explain proposals to expand protected marine areas throughout the Cayman Islands.
The extension of protected marine areas, from which no marine life can be removed dead or alive, includes implementing no-take rules from the shore to 200 feet of water, from the current depth of 80 feet, within those designated areas, Director of Environment Gina Ebanks-Petrie explained in the first of a series of district meetings to explain the new marine parks proposals to the public on Monday in George Town.
Pointing to posters of maps of the three Cayman Islands outlining the proposed changes, Ms Ebanks-Petrie said: “At first glance, our new proposals don’t look all that different from the existing marine parks. There are, however, some significant differences. Primarily, we have taken away the idea of replenishment zones and replaced those with marine reserves. What that means is we have increased our no-take areas around the three islands and this is in line with international recommendations.”
Ms Ebanks-Petrie continued: “Previously, there was only one no-take area in the west side of Grand Cayman … and a small no-take area at Rum Point, but everything else was wide open for fishing, so any impact to this area and our no-take area was gone. The idea behind distributing those no-take areas is there is some redundancy in the system, so if you have something like a hurricane and it impacts the south or east coast, you have the redundancy in the system where there are protected habitats in the west and north.”
At the moment only about 15 per cent of the marine shelf around the islands are absolute no-take areas. The new proposals aim to “try to get somewhere between 40 and 50 per cent of our shelf are under no-take protection”, Ms Ebanks-Petrie said.
“It was quite a drastic shift in terms of taking areas that were fairly open and unrestricted in terms of replenishment zones and now saying these are now no-take reserves. We’ve also extended the parks out to the 200 foot contour, which adds a bit of area to the actual park,” the director said.
The proposals will mean that the top of the wall and wall itself will be better protected, the audience of about 45 people in Elmslie Church hall heard Monday night. Line fishing is permitted in existing replenishment areas. Under the new proposals, line fishing would not be allowed in the marine reserves, which will replace the replenishment zones, but other line fishing only areas have been designated.
Under the proposals, the existing environmental zone in the Little Sound area of the North Sound remains untouched and the wildlife interaction zones at Stingray City and the Sandbar are also unchanged, while grouper spawning aggregation areas have been added into the marine parks to help protect them.
Explaining why the proposed changes are necessary when Cayman’s marine parks are considered to be successful examples of protected marine areas, the Director of Environment pointed to the “very small shelf area Cayman has to work with”.
“Grand Cayman has a total shelf area of about 160km square, Little Cayman has 26.5km square and Cayman Brac 21.3km square. When I refer to the shelf area, I mean the area where there are coral reefs and water shallow enough to support marine life before we get to the drop off area. Compare that with the Bahamas shelf, which has about 4,000 square kilometres of shelf,” Ms Ebanks-Petrie said.
She outlined new threats to the marine environment, which is under more pressure now than it was 25 years ago when marine parks were first established. With increased fishing, impact from climate change and the presence of invasive species, the protections put in the place a quarter century ago are no longer adequate to provide wide-ranging protection for local marine life and the coral reef, Ms Ebanks-Petrie said.
She pointed out the Cayman Islands has only 10 per cent to 12 per cent of live coral cover. In the 1970s, about 80 per cent of Cayman’s coral was living. “We are higher than average in the region, but our reefs have not escaped this decline,” she said.
Overfishing is also having an impact on the health of the marine environment. According to a Department of Environment survey, there are 264 fishermen operating in Grand Cayman, who catch about 15,000 fish a month. These were mostly reef fish, including “snappers, groupers, trigger fish, parrot fish – the fish that control algal cover on the reef and those are the fish that are being taken out in the largest amount,” Ms Ebanks-Petrie said.
She said perhaps the most manageable solution to protect the reefs was controlling fishing and subsequently the population of reef fish. The other manageable impact identified by the DoE is diving pressure, the director said, citing a conservative estimate of 460,000 dives happening in Cayman each year. The installation of buoys for boats at dive sites have helped mitigate the impact of diving on the reefs, she said.
What happens next?
The Department of Environment is inviting the public to fill out forms giving their feedback on the proposals. The DoE will then make any subsequent changes to those proposals and present the revised maps and recommendations to the Minister of Environment Mark Scotland, who would take it to Cabinet.
If Cabinet approves the proposals, the Marine Conservation Law and its regulations would be revised and the amended law would be presented to the Legislative Assembly.
The Department of Environment is holding district public meetings to inform the public of the proposals, part of which is based on feedback already received from members of the public in an earlier round of meetings and public consultations last year.
Another meeting was scheduled to be held in East End on Wednesday night and the next meeting is at the North Side Civic Centre on Thursday. Subsequent meetings will be at the Aston Rutty Centre on Cayman Brac on Monday, 29 October; the Grouper Room at the Little Cayman Beach Resort in Little Cayman on Tuesday, 30 October; at the Turtle Farm foyer in West Bay on Monday, 5 November and at the Bodden Town Civic Centre in Bodden Town on Tuesday, 6 November. All meetings begin at 7pm.