It may soon be illegal to remove rays from Cayman Islands waters.
Currently the only rays that are protected are those found within the Wildlife Interaction Zones at the Sandbar and Stingray City in the North Sound.
Environment minister Mark Scotland announced at a weekly Cabinet press briefing Thursday that an amendment to the Marine Conservation Law was being drafted to designate stingrays, eagle rays and all other kinds of rays as protected species.
Describing it as a “small amendment to the law, but of huge positive benefit for the environment and the tourism industry”, Mr. Scotland said the move would help address the decline in the population of Southern stingrays at the popular tourism destination, the Sandbar.
The need for protection for rays was highlighted last year when a study showed that the numbers of rays at the Sandbar were falling and when Dolphin Discovery was found to have four wild stingrays in its tanks that had earlier been tagged by scientists at the Sandbar.
The four rays at the dolphinarium in West Bay were subsequently released to Department of Environment staff who returned the rays to the North Sound. Six other stingrays in the tanks at the dolphinarium were not released as those rays were not tagged and could not be shown to have come from the Sandbar or Stingray City, and therefore were not protected under the existing law.
A census of the population of rays in January, 2012 found 61 rays at the Sandbar, while another census done six months later found 57 stingrays. Censuses in earlier years had found 100 or more stingrays at the Sandbar.
Management at the dolphinarium said fishermen had caught the rays and swapped them for bait – leftover fish used to feed the dolphins at the facility.
Conservationist Guy Harvey, whose research institute led the censuses of the rays at the Sandbar, started a petition last year, following the Dolphin Discovery incident, calling on the government to pass the long-delayed National Conservation Bill to provide protection for stingrays.
With the proposed amendment to the Marine Conservation Law, it will be illegal to take rays from the wild or to harm them in any way and is also likely to make it illegal to hold a ray in captivity.
Asked if anyone holding rays in captivity would have to release the animals, Mr. Scotland responded that while he may have to look at the issue further, “I would imagine it may be illegal then to have rays in captivity. If I draw the parallel to the Cayman parrot, which is a protected species, it is illegal to have Cayman parrots in captivity.”
The director of the Department of Environment, Gina Ebanks-Petrie, said of the proposed amendment: “While the local population of Southern stingrays appears to be healthy, the DoE is pleased that steps are being taken to protect these economically important species in Cayman waters and to make it illegal for anyone to have them in their possession.
“This will now make it possible for the DoE to take action should there be a repeat of the recent incident involving the capture of rays in North Sound. We are also very happy that the protections have been extended to two other species of ray in Cayman waters, the eagle ray and manta ray.”
Mr. Scotland said that move have come following discussions with the Department of Environment, adding that Cabinet had approved the proposed amendment, which was now being drafted. Once the final draft is approved by Cabinet, it will tabled in the Legislative Assembly. The minister said he hoped to bring the amended law to the House before parliament dissolves in March.
“The Sandbar and the stingrays are one of the major attractions for the tourism industry. We’ve actually seen a decline in numbers of rays in last few years. Without any protection, obviously, there was very little to be able to be done about that, so now with this small amendment drafted and hopefully approved in the very near future, rays will have protected under the Marine Conservation Law, a huge step forward for us,” Mr. Scotland said.